I moved to the Aroostook County community of Près Isle when I was three years old with my mother and sisters. While my mother started a new job and my sisters started in new schools, someone needed to take care of me. We didn’t have any friends or family in the area, so I participated in the Head Start program near his new job. I spent my days receiving a high-quality – and publicly funded – pre-K in a nurturing and safe environment.
Because of my pre-kindergarten experience, I started kindergarten ready to learn. I excelled academically, from elementary school to law school. I went on to serve three terms in the Legislative Assembly, and am “paying now” as an advocate for pre-K expansion across Maine.
My experience with public pre-kindergarten is typical of low- and middle-income children who have the opportunity. Research shows that such programs have overall positive impacts. In the short term, studies show that they increase kindergarten readiness and decrease discipline issues. In the long run, they increase high school graduation and college attendance rates and reduce juvenile incarceration. Public pre-K hasn’t just worked for me, it works for millions of American kids every year.
Unfortunately, public pre-K is not available in all communities. Why? Starting a program is often prohibitively expensive. It involves a lot of planning, hiring teachers, purchasing classroom equipment and materials, and finding physical space. Additionally, there is often a perception that most parents can (and should) pay out of pocket for private pre-K, so it is simply not a priority in school budgets.
My wife and I moved to the coastal community of Yarmouth for the same reason many young families move to town – schools. When our eldest was approaching the age of four, we learned that Yarmouth did not offer public preschool. We were surprised and disappointed. We sent our son to private preschool, but I decided to run for the school board with the goal of starting a public preschool program in our district.
In June 2021, I was elected to the school committee and got to work. My focus (some would say my obsession) with preschool is sometimes a source of amusement for my colleagues. I often joke that there are three things that happen at every school committee meeting – the oath of allegiance, the approval of the minutes from the previous meeting, and me talking about pre-K. This perseverance – along with the hard work of our administrators and the support of my colleagues – has turned decades of our community’s discussions of public pre-K into meaningful action. On March 10, we officially approved the program and our district will welcome its first class of 96 public pre-kindergarten students in September.
President Biden has proposed a nationwide expansion of pre-K programs, but regardless of what happens at the federal level, Maine lawmakers should make universal public pre-K a priority. Here are some policy changes they should consider:
• Competitive Pre-K Expansion Grants paid for with American Rescue Plan Act funds should not end when pandemic relief runs out. Maine should invest state money in these grants.
• Maine’s school funding formula should be changed to accommodate the lower student-teacher ratios required in pre-K grades. This will ensure more sustainable funding for the program.
• State funding should be conditional on closer partnerships between school districts and local private providers. In some cases, this may mean collocating public pre-kindergarten classrooms with private providers to avoid unnecessary construction costs. In other communities, this may mean closer collaboration in professional development and “wraparound” care before and after the school day.
With these modest policy changes, Maine can turn decades of public pre-K talk into action, just like we did in Yarmouth this year. Giving that “head start” to every child in Maine will give them a more equal chance to succeed in their education and in their lives. And we will all benefit from their success.
— Special for the Press Herald
Commentary: Sister cities show how peace is possible