In making its case that better early childhood education is a strategy for economic development, a group of Maine CEOs knew they needed to do one thing: show Maine the money.
That's what brought the Maine Early Learning Investment Group to finance a study of the return on investment from a birth-to-kindergarten education system. The study's finding: For each child who receives an upfront investment of $26,200 over five years, the return over the lifespan of that child is $125,400 — 4.8 times the initial investment.
"We're pretty convinced we're on the right path here," says Jim Clair, CEO of Goold Health Systems and chairman of MELIG.
The study draws on empirical analyses in other states and applies them to Maine. Breaking down the projected ROI, the study found children receiving better childhood education would grow up to be more productive and rely less on government programs for assistance. The break-even point for the cost of the early childhood education program versus societal costs to support a child without the educational benefits is age 14.
After launching over a year ago, MELIG is now hitting its stride. So far, Clair says the investment group — made up of 10 corporate leaders in the state — has raised between $400,000 and $500,000 through a soft start to fundraising and hopes to amass $10 million to support three educational pilot projects around the state.
"We have a small program that is scalable that we want to start in the next six months," Clair says.
Ideally, the project will launch in three distinct communities — rural, urban and somewhere in between — to provide guidance and data on the benefits of enhanced education for children between ages 0-3.
"We know we have to prove this out a little better before taking it to the public policymakers," Clair says.
Meredith Burgess, a MELIG member and Republican who served three terms representing District 108 in the Maine House, knows that firsthand.
"Every time we would try to advance these issues, people would say it doesn't apply up here and there's no evidence that (early education works)," Burgess, who is CEO of Burgess Advertising, says. "So, for once we have Maine-based research and documented data to go back into those conversations."
With the group's findings issued late in this session among rancorous debate over budget spending, one of MELIG's lead proposals — for a universal, voluntary public pre-kindergarten — was pushed into the next session.
For now, Burgess says the group is focused on promoting the general argument that early education pays off, rather than specific programs.
The program MELIG used in the study is distinct from the well-known federal Head Start program, which serves children ages 3-5. Clair says the group has envisioned a program that focuses on younger children and targets children living in families with incomes less than $23,550 for a family of four.
"Most reports like this look at universal pre-school," says Philip Trostel, the economist at the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center & School of Economics who wrote the MELIG study.
Trostel says the program MELIG has outlined would have greater returns by focusing on the nearly 32,500 Maine children between ages of 0-5 who fall within the income guidelines.
Based on participation rates in programs in other states, the study estimates around 22,842 children would participate annually in Maine.
Up to age 4, educating those children would cost about $20,129, the study found. From ages 5 to 17, however, the study estimates that the average per-child savings by avoiding costs associated with child protective services, special education, grade repetition and juvenile corrections would total $25,717, creating a net gain.
While the savings projections are presented in clear figures in the study, Trostel writes that any road to improving the state's early education system remains hazy.
"It is very likely that a major policy change would have to be implemented gradually over time," Trostel writes. "If nothing else, the qualified work force and infrastructure required to achieve a substantial increase in early childhood education would have to be developed and could not happen immediately."
Clair and others hope to initiate those changes. When the 126th Legislature reconvenes in the fall, Burgess says the study will serve to inform discussion of the issue.
"This is just the drumbeat of this conversation getting louder," Burgess says.