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Why Maine is lagging on its goal of universal pre-K

Students in Loyann Worster's pre-K class in Veazie spend the majority of their time outside. In particular, students are often in the woods surrounding the Veazie Community School seen here on March 6.
Sawyer Loftus
Students in Loyann Worster's pre-K class in Veazie spend the majority of their time outside. In particular, students are often in the woods surrounding the Veazie Community School seen here on March 6. 

The state of Maine is behind on its goal of offering universal access to public pre-K programs by the 2026-2027 school year. According to a story on Wednesday by Bangor Daily News reporter Sawyer Loftus, only about 43% of public school districts are offering universal pre-K.

Loftus reports that the biggest barrier to expansion is the state's education funding formula, because it doesn't provide enough money for schools to hire additional staff that may be needed. And as Loftus explained to Maine Public's Robbie Feinberg, the formula actually incentivizes schools to open partial-day programs, because they aren't reimbursed more for full days.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Loftus: They're both funded the same way. So you have half-day programs with more kids getting more money than full-day programs with possibly less kids, which are more cost intensive. So that's a bit of a problem that the state Department of Education has acknowledged, and that they're tweaking. There was a legislative commission that studied the expansion, like what it would take Maine to get to this 100% universal pre-K goal by the 2026-2027 school year, and addressing the funding formula — and in particular, those two issues — was the No. 1 recommendation.

Feinberg: Did the Department of Education or any other groups, are they floating any potential solutions to this issue?

When I interviewed folks from the Department of Education, they didn't name specific solutions. But they did say that they are currently workshopping this issue. They're trying to find ways to tweak the funding formula that would address these while also not removing local control. Although the state wants full-day pre-K, none of this — and even the goal of having 100% school districts in the state having public pre-K — none of this is a mandate. It is still up to the local school districts and school units to make that decision for themselves. And so when they're adjusting the funding formula, that's one of the things that they have been thinking about, because there will be some school districts that want to keep having half-day programs instead of full-day programs for a variety of reasons.

So you also have another story that's going to be coming out that is looking at a place that did expand pre-K, in Bangor. What did you learn from their experience and what it shows about this issue?

Bangor is a really interesting story when it comes to pre-K. Superintendent Jim Tager explained to me the school department rolled out full-day pre-K in kind of three phases over three school years, first starting at one school, Vine Street School. And they saw the success of those students and how at the end of that school year, they had accomplished so much more and were meeting learning benchmarks that a lot of the half-day programs in the district were not meeting. In particular, one takeaway was that students were beginning to read by the end of a full year of all-day pre-K. And that was a really remarkable learning outcome. And they found that they were just so much better prepared for kindergarten that they decided to kind of accelerate that timeline. And so, so far this year, they've seen nothing but success, they have found that the students that have gone through the previous years of that phased rollout of full-day pre-K were and continue to be so much better adjusted to school. This time in these children's lives is so important developmentally, and they've just had a lot of success.

It sounds like that also speaks maybe to the stakes of this issue as well, where if we don't reach these goals, what that will mean for children and families.

Early learning is really important for just overall childhood development. Leann Larson from the Maine Department of Education told me that about 90% of a child's brain is fully developed by the age of four. That just really shows the importance of a quality early childhood education program. The biggest thing that pre-K in Maine is trying to achieve is helping these students develop socially and emotionally. All the teachers I spoke to talked about how their programs are designed to teach students how to be good people and good friends. And when you take into account how rapidly a child's brain develops in those early years, these programs are pretty critical for for supporting that.