A child's brain undergoes a staggering amount of development in the first five years of life, affecting future success in ways we are only beginning to understand. This newfound knowledge has led to the proliferation of preschool programs aimed at making sure children are ready — socially, emotionally and cognitively — for kindergarten, regardless of where they live or who their parents are.

That's a positive development for everyone concerned with the well-being of the nation's next generation, or with the challenges of building a 21st-century workforce.

But if we are to truly reap the dividends of early childhood education, it must be valued and supported in a way that is now rare.

Nationwide, early learning teachers and caregivers — even those with a bachelor's degree or higher — earn only slightly more than half as much as kindergarten teachers. In every state, the median pay for child-care workers would qualify for food stamps with a family of three, and in 32 states the median income would put the worker in poverty.

(Maine falls somewhere in middle of the 50 states, paying child-care workers and preschool teachers on average slightly more than the national median.)

That's hardly a winning plan to recruit the best teachers, and while there is still much to learn about creating effective preschool programs, this much is clear — they work best when overseen by dedicated, engaged and creative instructors.


That's hard to maintain when the best instructors are opting to teach higher grades instead, or are dealing with the disruptive influences of poverty in their own lives.

Indeed, according to an analysis by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley, programs with higher wages and less turnover spend more time engaged in the kind of positive and developmentally appropriate activities that give kids the skills and knowledge they need to do well once in school.

The stakes are high. Throughout the country, children from low-income families are falling behind their peers, almost from birth.

Children build a vocabulary based on interactions with their parents and other adults, and by the age of 3, because of parental involvement and education level, higher-income kids have heard some 30 million more words than their lower-income counterparts.

What's more, vocabulary at age 3 has been shown to predict third-grade reading achievement, itself a major predictor of future success.

The long-term impact is remarkable. According to the Maine Early Learning Investment Group, a full-time early education program from birth to kindergarten would help low-income students begin school on par with their peers, and could raise high school graduation rates for low-income students by 18 percentage points.

With a quarter of Maine children under 5 living in poverty, and the achievement gap between them and their peers widening, those results cannot be ignored.

To make sure they apply in Maine, we have to fund early childhood education at a level that matches its importance. It is not simply babysitting. Children under 5 are sponges. What they see, hear and feel during those formative years changes their brain, for better or worse, and determines how they will learn, interact and deal with adversity throughout their lives.

Those influences should be beneficial, and when a young child is away from his parents, they should be provided by well-trained, effective educators.

– The Portland Press Herald (Maine), June 16, 2016