Guest Editorial

Kids count!

By Jayne Crosby Giles | Dec 28, 2017

While helping a volunteer Belfast Rotary Santa deliver gifts and goodies recently, I overheard a conversation that highlights the value of investing in early childhood education for very young children.

“1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8,” counted Timmy (not his real name). “Excellent!  Where did you learn to count so well?” asked Santa. “I learned in pre-K!” shouted the boy. Even before starting kindergarten, 4-year old Timmy knows his numbers!

Investing in kids at an early age — in prekindergarten and preschool — is a smart move. Kids learn earlier, build confidence and are much more successful when entering kindergarten. The “Timmys” and other young children are farther ahead when starting school.

Investing now saves money later. A 2015 National Institutes of Health study of a Chicago-based preschool program projected it will generate up to “$11 of economic benefits over a child’s lifetime for every dollar spent initially on the program.” These “savings” come from children who are more likely to stay in school through graduation, complete post-secondary education at higher rates, and avoid risky behaviors while in school, and who are less likely to have special education needs.

In 1983, federal legislation was passed to provide all prekindergarten children a chance to start school on an even footing. The legislation was targeted to special needs children requiring programs and support for early intervention. Since then, early education and intervention before kindergarten have resulted in a generation of children better prepared for entering school.

The 1983 legislation was viewed largely as a fairness issue — to give all kids an equal chance despite ability. Today, early childhood education for toddlers through 5-year-olds is considered a smart and essential investment. During the first five years of life, children’s brains are developing; thus, preschool helps prepare them for greater lifetime success.

Increasing public investment in early childhood education requires a look at both long-term results — because it is many years before a child becomes an adult — and immediate results; e.g., quality early child care is essential for working parents, especially single-parent households.

Working parents need the added support of nurturing, educational child care to ensure their children achieve in and out of school. For rural areas, local child care services help attract and keep young families in the community. Quality child care is as essential to keeping small towns vibrant as is a local convenience store, post office or elementary school.

There are programs available for child care professionals to ensure quality preschool education. The state offers the Maine Roads to Quality Professional Development Network that promotes professionalism among early childhood education providers. Under this program, the state provides education and training for teachers and practitioners across the state. Child care centers may undergo national accreditations, such as that of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the nation’s leading organization of early childhood professionals. These certifications provide added assurance to parents that their child is receiving quality child care.

Child care is a business — even if set up as a nonprofit. Successful child care businesses are better able to pay their employees competitive wages and benefits, something not always found in early childhood education because of the challenge of providing classrooms that are well-staffed and with low child-to-teacher ratios.

A public policy concern is to how to make preschool affordable for all families, regardless of household income. In Waldo County, there are approximately 1,800 kids under age 5, plus, the poverty rate is 14 percent higher than the state of Maine’s average. This might leave too many Waldo County children unable to attend preschool because of cost.

The good news is that there are affordable pre-K options for many parents, including Broadreach Family & Community Services in Regional School Unit 71 and WCAP’s Headstart in RSU 3. There also are many wonderful private-pay preschools in Waldo County, and the state offers a voucher program for tuition assistance to eligible low-income families.

Are these programs enough so that our children enter kindergarten able to count along with Timmy? Finding new resources in already-tight state and federal budgets is a challenge; to address it, we need to take a harder look at the value of investing in preschool education. In the short term, quality child care helps working parents go to work and young families thrive. Over the long term, the opportunity for each child’s success increases significantly.

The return on investment is proven. Our priorities should be clear: Let’s commit and invest the necessary resources for all of our children to become active, early learners.

Jayne Crosby Giles is the owner of Giles Consulting. A former member of the Broadreach Family & Community Services board and its development officer, she has an extensive background in banking, including serving as CEO for MaineStream Finance, a nonprofit community bank based in Bangor that provides loans to childcare center owners as part of its small business services. She lives in Belfast.


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