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Maine Bill Would Expand Pre-K Programs to All Districts
01/23/2014   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Statewide pre-kindergarten programs could be required at all Maine schools systems, if a bill currently under review by a legislative committee becomes law. Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Eloise Vitelli, of Arrowsic, the measure would extend pre-kindergarten programs to all of Maine's roughly 160 school districts. As A.J. Higgins reports, no one disputes the value of early childhood education, but some lawmakers are struggling with the cost of the bill.

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Long before state Sen. Eloise Vitelli decided to run for the Legislature, the Arrowsic Democrat was a Head Start teacher, an experience she says left her with no doubts about the value of exposing young children to the classroom.

"Early education plays a critical role in determining where a person ends up in life," Vitelli said. "Children who receive a quality education at a young age are more successful in school and in life, and are better citizens as a result."

Now Vitelli is sponsoring a bill that will ensure that by 2017, every four-year-old in Maine will have the opportunity to get a quality early childhood education. The bill would require the state Department of Education to create a group of stakeholders who would develop standards for prekindergarten education programs, and, among other duties, recommend how to best coordinate those programs with child care providers.

Vitelli says her bill would also provide incentives to school administrative units that currently don't offer prekindergarten programs.

"Only 60 percent of school districts today do offer some kind of pre-K and that's not bad," Vitelli said. "But there's still that 40 percent of school districts around the state who are not currently offering early education."

"I've been a law enforcement officer for over 30 years and one of the things that I know - and I know from talking with the teachers in the classroom - is that very early on they can identify students that are probably destined for failure," said Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry.

During a morning press conference called by bill's supporters, Merry said the county jails are filled with young offenders who are trying now to grasp the kind of skills and respect for education that begins at the pre-K level.

Maine Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors agreed, saying that early childhood education not only molds better students, but also better workers. Unfortunately, the business leader said, too many Maine communities are behind the curve.

"We start too late," Connors said. "High quality, early care and education for our young people is truly a way to strengthen our economic future and the future of our people."

The early childhood education bill has bipartisan support in the Legislature, and Rep. Peter Johnson of Greenville, the lead GOP lawmaker on the Education Committee, says no one disputes the value of the pre-K programs. He does, however, have problems with the legislation because it forces an unfunded mandate on school districts and communities that currently have no such programs.

And he says pre-K seems to be catching on already with more than half of the state's school systems. "There's not really as much consistency among programs as there ought to be, but basically at this point, I'm going to wait and see how the discussion goes. But funding is the big problem," Johnson says.

Democrats such as Sen. Chris Johnson, of Somerville, say the bill would have costs, but that those expenses would be offset by the benefits created by a statewide program for all students.

"Yes, we're weighing costs of this, but we're also talking about lowering costs down the road and benefitting people's lives in the process," Johnson says. "So I'm sure we'll have a good discussion today on that in committee."

Members of the Education Committee were continuing their review of the bill at air time.


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