Lewiston is in the midst of an ambitious endeavor. It is one that has far-reaching benefits for our schools, community, taxpayers and our most important resource: our children.

Investment in the earliest years pays off. We know that quality early education profoundly affects the development of brain architecture. A solid foundation is key to cognitive development, the ability to learn, school readiness and success later in life. It is also an important rung on the ladder out of generational poverty and welfare dependence.

Lewiston is a leader in this area as one of the first Maine communities to commit to universal pre-kindergarten. We are on track to accomplish that by the end of the decade. Already, we have seen the partnership between the Lewiston School Department and Androscoggin Head Start pay off.

The children who just finished third grade this year make up Lewiston’s first class that had significant access to pre-kindergarten. The 71 children who attended pre-kindergarten are ahead of their peers who did not go through pre-K in both reading and math. The same trend holds true for students leaving second grade, first grade and kindergarten. Educators expect to see similar patterns with the 257 children who will enter kindergarten this fall after going through pre-kindergarten.

That is no fluke.

National research reveals that children in high quality pre-kindergarten programs are more ready to learn — whether their families are low-income or affluent. Kids who go through pre-kindergarten do better than their peers who stay at home with their families, go to child care centers or attend some other type of preschool program.

Local teachers say they can tell when kindergartners arrive with the benefit of having attended pre-school. One educator shared the story of “Z,” a little boy who wouldn’t talk to others when he entered pre-kindergarten. Over the school year, Z emerged as outgoing and helpful, whether it was on the playground or in teaming up with a peer to count dinosaurs at the sensory table. By year’s end, Z’s classmates and teachers nominated him student of the month – an honor he accepted at a school-wide assembly with confidence and pride.

It may be hard to believe, but many children are not ready to learn when they enter kindergarten. There are differences not just in social skills, but also in the ability to recognize the alphabet, vocabulary size, familiarity with books and problem solving.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, 46 percent of kindergarten teachers believe half of their students have trouble following directions, 36 percent believe half have issues with academic skills and 34 percent feel that more than half have a hard time working independently. Once a child falls behind, it is difficult to make up that lost ground.

The benefits of pre-kindergarten reach beyond the early school years. Research finds significant differences in high school graduation and employment rates, the likelihood of being arrested and in lifetime earning potential. We also know that quality early education improves later participation in the labor force – and that jobs are the best anti-poverty program we have.

These findings have significant implications for taxpayers. Maine, for example, spends $161 million annually on corrections. By way of comparison, state spending on pre-kindergarten was only about $8 million in 2011.

A report from University of Maine economist Philip Trostel found that high-quality preschool education cuts spending on corrections, special education, and social welfare benefits. The research also finds that such investment in a low-income child saves taxpayers an average of $125,400 over the child’s lifetime — more than five times the initial investment. If that is not good fiscal policy, I don’t know what is.

Here in Lewiston, we are entering an exciting phase of our early education efforts. Previously, families entered a lottery in hopes of placing their kids in a pre-kindergarten class. The lottery was eliminated last year due in large part to increased funding from the Legislature, and the partnership between the School Department and Head Start provided for additional pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Now, every Lewiston parent who wants to send their child to pre-kindergarten can do that. It is one of the best things we can do for our kids and our community.

Rep. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, serves on the Lewiston City Council and on the board of Androscoggin Head Start. He is seeking election to Senate District 21.


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