Recently, the Annie E. Casey Foundation issued a report about a key national problem: Too many of our children don’t read proficiently by the end of the third grade. Follow-up testing of eighth- and 11th-graders confirms that poor reading skills results in poor performance in other subjects, too. The report suggests these students don’t do well when they leave school, either.

This national KIDS COUNT report puts a strong focus on an issue vital to children — their success in education. While experts often disagree about causes, or find data subject to differing interpretations, the conclusion here is unmistakably clear: Children who learn to read by grade three can use their reading skills to learn and perform increasingly complex tasks. Those who can’t read proficiently are in danger of continued poor performance and of eventually dropping out of school, with the enormous costs that imposes on individuals, families and the community.

The report is also very clear about which children are most at risk. Children who grow up in poor families are much more likely to have problems learning to read. By one standard measure, 79 percent of Maine’s children eligible for free or reduced fee school lunches do not read proficiently.

That’s the bad news. The much better news is that Maine is already working to implement one of the report’s key recommendations — that a program for early identification and intervention be in place for all pre-school children at risk.

Organizations and individuals across Maine have united around this common theme: that investment in kids, particularly in their earliest years, can pay huge dividends. That’s true not only in school, but for all aspects of their lives.

Business leaders, law enforcement professionals, and even retired military officers have all been speaking out to advocate investment in children, emphasizing that it pays for itself many times over.

Business leaders know that a shrinking workforce will provide challenges to find qualified workers who can master the job skills necessary for the 21st century economy. Making sure that our kids are healthy and well educated may well be the key to the continued success of their businesses.

Police officers experience, on a daily basis, the consequences for children who grow up without adequate support from family and community. Drug and alcohol use by teens, and other offenses, are much higher for kids who drop out of school and are unemployed.

Military officers call attention to the fact that many young people today are not qualified to serve in the armed forces, either through a lack of education, criminal records or the ability to meet fitness standards.

The Maine Children’s Alliance is indebted to these leaders for their advocacy. They epitomize our symbol, the giraffe, honoring those who stick out their necks for kids. They have become articulate and forceful speakers for this cause, in public appearances, letters to the editor, and other community forums.

We are happy to be able to reinforce their message because it is one that is vital to our mission as well. Invest a dollar in a child today, and the money will be returned by as much as 16 times over. And since the brains of children are highly developed even before they attend school, these investments must start at the very beginning of their lives.

Beyond the financial benefits, the reality is that too many of our children are suffering unnecessarily. As a community, we can help them grow up healthy and productive in school and careers even when they don’t have the best start in life.

That’s the other part of the message that we hope all Mainers will hear.

Dean Crocker is president of the Maine Children’s Alliance, a statewide advocacy organization based in Augusta.


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