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Advocate: Biden's $200 Billion Pre-K Proposal Would Be 'Complete Game Changer' For Maine

Nick Woodward
Maine Public file
Penni Theriault, the owner of Lots of Tots Child Care in Princeton, Maine, reads to children in June 2019.

President Joe Biden is proposing the federal government spend $200 billion to provide universal pre-kindergarten. That proposal would no doubt benefit many, but there could be some hurdles for Maine to overcome.

Morning Edition host Irwin Gratz spoke with Maine Children's Alliance Senior Policy Analyst Rita Furlow about the proposal.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

In a nutshell, what's at stake in this proposal for Maine families?

It is a complete game changer for Maine families to be able to access a pre-K program for their three year old, their four year old that is free. As almost anyone who has a child or grandchild knows, child care is incredibly expensive. And families are really struggling to pay those expenses. And also just to even find child care that's available near where they work and live.

And it's an issue the state has grappled with for some time. There was a proposal just in the last legislative session for universal pre-K that didn't make it, probably because of the cost.

For this to really happen, states alone really can't shoulder this financial burden. It's just gotten to the point where families really are at the breaking point. The cost is, you know, anywhere around $10,000 a year, right. The same price as sending a student to the University of Maine.

And I imagine too, it has become a source of inequity around the state.

Absolutely. Based on income, certainly. And then, right, we see dramatic differences depending upon where you live, particularly rural counties in Maine have much less access.

There's so much about this that probably still is not known. But are you confident the program as the Biden people have envisioned it, the amount of money they seem to be setting aside for it, is that going to be enough to make this actually happen?

I think it's going to be a significant start. This is not just a challenge in Maine, it's a challenge across the country. And it's a system that we've really come to realize, again, as a result of the pandemic, that our market-based system that it relies on just doesn't work. And so it's really going to take the federal government stepping up and making this investment that's going to be the beginning. This is a complicated system. There's a mix of private, for-profit businesses, nonprofits, and then, you know, organizations like Head Start and public preschool. And so we will have to figure out how those pieces can work together, which I think is a big part of the Biden proposal.

Might there be some logistical issues? Either enough space, or enough trained early childhood workers to make this happen?

Those are definitely issues. So it's going to look different in different communities. So you know, there may be some school districts that actually have physical space, and maybe they don't have a teacher, but maybe they can bring in someone from Head Start, someone from a private child care and employ them in their classroom. But we do have to figure out a way, right, so that we can not displace a lot of the early childhood educators who are doing this work, but instead, bring them into a system, provide them, more importantly, with better wages. We are losing people in this field, because the pay is so discouraging. Average pay is around $24,000 a year. So that really would be improved by this kind of a system.

Is there ample evidence that this would be beneficial for the children?

Oh, absolutely. That's the thing we are absolutely clear on and have known for such a long time. One of the most exciting things in this field is brain research. And we know so much more than we knew 10 years ago, 20 years ago, about the importance of early childhood education, about the give and take that children need, the relationships and how that is so important to their brain structure. We know it's going to be the best thing for kids too. But I think we will see lots of work still needing to be done by the Biden administration to turn this into a reality.