Early childhood development measures advance

Proposals increase access to Head Start and child care, promote quality care 

AUGUSTA – The Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee supported two bills Thursday that would help young Mainers have opportunities for success.

A majority of the committee voted in favor of legislation to restore Head Start funding and another bill to increase access to quality child care.

Rep. Aaron Frey, D-Bangor, sponsored a bill to restore funding for Head Start and child care vouchers for low-income families if finally passed by the full Legislature.

Drastic cuts in 2012 led to 226 Maine families losing access to Head Start as state support fell from $2.44 million to $440,000. Maine families also lost access to more than $3 million in federal money when the state cut its match to the Child Care Development Fund by $1.9 million. The fund allows low-income parents to remain in the workforce by providing access to child care, and the loss of funding resulted in waiting lists for vouchers.

Frey’s bill would build on the funding that was restored by the Legislature for fiscal year 2014. It would provide $2 million for Head Start, set up a formula for distribution of the funds and draw down $3 million in federal CCDF funds.

“Head Start serves Maine’s most at-risk children,” Frey said. “We know it improves school readiness, educational achievement and health. We need to continue these investments in our future.”

LD 1581, sponsored by House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, would provide quality child care providers a modest, merit-based pay raise.

The state’s quality rating systems considers staff training, facility conditions and programming strength. The bill increases the amount of the current quality incentive by using federal Child Care Development Funds and would have no impact on the state’s General Fund.

“This measure gives our quality childcare providers a long-overdue raise,” said Berry, who was an award-winning public school teacher. “Maine can create a brighter future both for tomorrow’s taxpayers and employers and for today’s children and their families.”

Representatives of the Maine Children’s Alliance, the United Way, the Maine Women’s Lobby and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of law enforcement officials and violence survivors, provided testimony at the bills’ public hearing last week.

In written testimony, Todd Brackett from the Lincoln County Sheriff Office and Fight Crime, said, “high-quality early care and education for at-risk kids can not only reduce the likelihood of a child committing a crime later in life, but it also provides far greater costs savings to our communities and our state in the long run.”

A recent report shows that investment in a child’s earliest years pays off.  Path to a Better Future: The Fiscal Payoff of Investment in Early Childhood in Maine, by University of Maine economist Philip Trostel, found a 7.5 percent return on investment. It also found that high-quality preschool education for a low-income child saves taxpayers an average of $125,400 over the child’s lifetime – more than five times the initial investment.

The bills will now go to the full Legislature for votes in the coming weeks.