As national and state economies struggle to recover and create jobs, policymakers at all levels need to seize every opportunity to move forward on investments that will benefit families, businesses and the economy.

Continuing and increasing investments in high-quality early learning must be a top priority.

Why early learning? Because extensive research confirms these programs will help Maine develop a better, more qualified workforce with the skills we know our businesses will require.

Right now, our young people are entering the real world unprepared for college and career, and jobs increasingly require at least some post-secondary education.

If we cannot find qualified workers to fill these jobs — particularly in the fast-growing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields — it could leave Maine with a shortage of 15,000 high-skilled workers by 2022, according to a report from the business leaders group, America’s Edge.

We will have a hard time filling these jobs if current education trends continue.

Problems are evident from an early age.

According to the most recent Maine Development Foundation Measures of Growth report, only 32 percent of Maine’s fourth-graders are reading at a proficient or above level. While on the rise in recent testing, only 39 percent of Maine’s eighth-graders scored proficient or better in math.

Academic achievement problems continue to plague students through high school and beyond. Sixteen percent of Maine students fail to complete high school. Of those who do graduate and attempt to enter the military, 19 percent fail to score well enough on the ASVAB to be accepted into service. The University of Maine System reports that 12 percent of its accepted students need at least one remedial class, as do a shocking 50 percent of students attending Maine’s community colleges.

In order to create a strong and qualified workforce for the future, we need to invest in high-quality pre-K programs.

Extensive research confirms that children who participate in such programs are significantly more likely to enter kindergarten with the skills they need to learn, which leads to successes during school and later in the workforce. Results from the best early learning programs show that participating students have increased language skills, less need for special education and increased graduation rates.

Participating students are not only better prepared academically, but better developed in the “soft skills” that we often see lacking among job candidates, such as the abilities to collaborate well and to think critically and creatively.

The Androscoggin County Chamber has long had a policy of supporting expanded pre-K opportunities as a major way to improve overall educational performance. If young children enter school behind, it is a handicap that is very hard to overcome.

Students from such high-quality programs are also up to 22 percent more likely to be employed as an adult and can earn as much as 36 percent more than those who did not participate in the programs.

In fact, the research shows savings of at least $15,000 per child who participates in quality early learning programs because of these outcomes.

But the economic benefits are not only in the future. We can have real and significant economic benefits from high-quality early learning right now.

According to America’s Edge, every $1 invested in early care and education in Maine generates a total of $1.78 in sales of goods and services from Maine businesses. That is an economic boost that outperforms investments in transportation, construction, and even forestry and fishing.

Maine lawmakers and Gov. LePage have a unique opportunity to expand voluntary public pre-K education across our state by accepting a proposal from the Education Committee to use Oxford Casino revenues — ones already earmarked for education — specifically to fund the creation and expansion of high-quality pre-K into more Maine communities.

Investing new revenues into the education program with the highest rate of return — early learning — simply makes good business sense.

As seasoned business leaders, we are used to making tough decisions. But this is an easy one. This time the decision is clear — investment in high-quality pre-K is smart for our families, smart for our communities and smart for business.

Clif Greim is president of Harriman Architects and Engineers, a member of the Maine State Chamber Board of Directors and chair-elect of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce. Charles “Chip” Morrison is president of the Androscoggin County Chamber of Commerce.


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