A new law that expands access to pre-Kindergarten programs in Maine goes into effect on Friday.

“Early education is crucial for children both in school and in life, and we are stronger as a community and a state when every child has the opportunity pre-K provides to learn and grow,” said Senator Eloise Vitelli of Arrowsic, a former preschool teacher. “Pre-K may not be for every child or every family, but no one should be denied the opportunity because of where they live.”

Currently, only 60% of Maine school districts offer some form of pre-K, and less than one third of four year olds are enrolled in a public pre-K program.

The new law provides start-up funding for school districts that want to offer a voluntary pre-K program. The funding is from the state of Maine’s share of casino revenues.

“When we make preschool available for more children, more kids will be ready when they get to Kindergarten,” said Senator Chris Johnson of Somerville, who serves on the Education Committee in the Legislature. “This is one more step towards that important goal.”

The law was supported by law enforcement officers, the Maine State Chamber of Commerce, and educators.

At a press conference in support of the bill, Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry noted that we either pay now by investing in early education or we pay up in the long run with rising incarceration costs.

According to the Fight Crime: Invest in Kids report, at-risk youth not involved in a pre-K program were 70% more likely to commit violent crimes by the age of 18. In that report, a national survey among police chiefs reported more than 80% ranked investment in early childhood as the “top strategy” for reducing crime.

With around 2,000 incarcerated adults, Maine currently spends $161 million per year on prisons.

“The early years in a child’s life are critical in determining where they end up in life,” said Senator Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth, the Senate Chair of the Education Committee. “Only by investing in early childhood education can we begin to close achievement gaps in our state.”

According to a 2011 report by America’s Edge , every $1 invested in early education in Maine generates $1.78 in economic activity, a greater rate of return than investments in farming, forestry, fishing and hunting, transportation, construction, retail trade, wholesale trade, manufacturing, and utilities.

The text of the law can be found here.

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