Flawed funding formula threatens Maine’s pre-K goals

By Sawyer Loftus, Bangor Daily News Staff

Maine has set a goal to ensure all 4-year-olds can attend public prekindergarten by the fall of 2026, but it may not meet that target unless the state’s school funding formula changes to encourage wider adoption, agreed educators, a policy analyst, state officials and a legislative commission.

The funding formula currently deters school districts from starting new pre-K programs or shifting from part-day to full-day programs because it does not account for the lower student-to-staff ratios required for pre-K classrooms, requires districts already receiving less state education funding to pick up more pre-K costs, and inadvertently incentivizes part-day programs.

As a result, Maine may miss a series of goals enshrined in law in 2023 by the Maine Legislature that culminate with the aim of having all public school districts offering universal access to pre-K programs by the 2026-2027 school year, education officials said. The legislation was meant to encourage districts to expand opportunities for all children who want to attend public pre-K, though districts can offer either half or full-day programs, and there is no penalty for not complying.

Maine’s pre-K programs are praised nationally for their high educational quality, but, despite efforts over the last 40 years, they have taken hold slowly. State officials continue to try to encourage, rather than mandate, more districts to build up pre-K.

“The more that we can work together to meet those needs and help support youngsters during this very pivotal time of their lives, the better off we are all going to be because of that investment,” said Lee Anne Larsen, director of early learning for the Maine Department of Education.

About only 43 percent of all public school districts in Maine offer universal access to pre-K, according to department data, meaning Maine is not likely to hit the first goal outlined in the law to have 60 percent of districts providing universal pre-K by the fall. The next goal is for 80 percent of districts to offer the program by the fall of 2025.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if we reached upwards to at least 55 percent of our [districts offering universal pre-K], but I’m not sure we’ll meet that 60 percent next year,” Larsen said. “But we’ll be making forward progress, and that is very important.” 

While the number of public pre-K programs has grown over time, access is still uneven, according to the Maine Children’s Alliance. A recent report from the organization shows Washington, Piscataquis and Aroostook counties had the highest rate of public preschool enrollment this school year. Cumberland, Waldo and Sagadahoc counties had the lowest.

Even neighboring towns may approach pre-K differently. This is the first school year that Bangor has offered full-day pre-K for all 4-year-olds who wish to attend. Orono runs a half-day pre-K program, while Veazie has offered full-day pre-K for at least eight years.

“It really enhances their self-confidence and their sense of self,” said Loyann Worster, Veazie’s pre-K teacher. “Pre-K teaches you how to be a good friend and kind. They’re learning how to be a community of learners.” 

While all pre-K programs have to abide by certain educational standards, they have flexibility in how they carry out their programs as long as the curriculum is evidence-based. In Worster’s nature-based education program, people will usually find her students outside — getting muddy, learning about the animals that call their woods home, and understanding environmental stewardship.

“Our [pre-K program] is quite different,” she said. The children sometimes go inside for a small lesson or activity, but they “spend anywhere from 50 to 75 percent of their week outside.” 

Veazie residents and school administrators have consistently supported having a full-day pre-K program because they value the level of learning, she said. She has also sought grant funding, such as to provide each child with waterproof overalls.

Overall, nearly 90 percent of Maine school districts have some type of public pre-K program, but less than half are open to all eligible kids in their communities, as the Veazie program is.

A recently published report by a legislative commission tasked with studying what it would take to boost access to pre-K found the state’s own funding formula — which determines the state and local funding shares for each school district — is a major roadblock because it doesn’t properly account for the additional costs that come with operating a pre-K program.

Pre-K programs in Maine have two funding streams, one built to help districts with start-up costs and the other for ongoing operations. 

So far the state has spent more than $7 million from Gov. Janet Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan over the last couple years to help school districts with start-up costs, said Marcus Mrowka, an education department spokesperson. Schools may need to construct a new classroom or purchase student-friendly furniture.

But the hurdle of finding ongoing funding remains, said Rita Furlow, a senior policy analyst for the Maine Children’s Alliance. 

For instance, schools that are already receiving less in state aid under the formula are at a disadvantage because the burden to fund a new pre-K program will fall with more weight on local taxpayers, Furlow said.

What’s more, the formula doesn’t fund half-day and full-day programs differently. Instead, a half-day program gets the same amount of state dollars per pupil as a full-day program. 

This means a school district that has multiple half-day programs could have more pre-K students enrolled in total and get more state money than districts that have full-day programs with fewer students, the commission’s report stated. 

“I think we have got a ways to go, and we have to figure out some of the funding issues to make it successful,” Furlow said.

The formula also doesn’t account for the extra teachers that are often needed in pre-K classrooms due to required student-to-staff ratios, Larsen said. The state requires one staff member for every 25 students in kindergarten and one staff member for every eight students in pre-K. But the formula doesn’t calculate the need to fund an additional staff person when pre-K classrooms have more than eight students. 

“That’s probably one of the biggest issues,” Larsen said. “The way the funding formula is operating, it’s not accounting for that extra staffing the way that we would like it to. So we need to make some adjustments.” 

Examining the funding mechanism for pre-K was a key part of the legislative commission’s work.

Current incentives make universal pre-K more of an “it would be nice if you can” situation rather than a steadfast goal for school districts, said Senate Majority Leader Eloise Vitelli, D-Arrowsic, one of the commission chairs. 

“We need to restructure the payment system within [the Essential Programs and Services funding formula] to adequately fund pre-K and to allow for some flexible funding,” she said. 

Flexible funding could be used for school districts to partner with private child care providers or other community organizations to find creative ways to offer new pre-K programs.

In Bath, for example, the school district has partnered with the YMCA to host pre-K, allowing some parents to have access to child care at the YMCA when the pre-K day ends, Vitelli said.

“With partnerships like we have in Bath, you also can save on transportation costs because the kids are only taken to one place for the whole day, and the school hasn’t had to make adaptations in its setting,” she said. “But the problem is, not every community has a YMCA.” 

Rep. Tavis Hasenfus, D-Readfield, the other chair of the commission, said the funding model needs to change to match staffing requirements, but he doesn’t expect state government to fully pay for universal pre-K. Some funding still needs to come from local school districts. 

“We’re asking the communities to also help out because it’s a benefit to the school districts to have these individuals at a young age in there, ready to learn,” Hasenfus said. “What we’re doing really is just building future community members.” 

When asked if he thinks Maine can achieve its pre-K goals, Hasenfus said it’s up to the state. 

“If the Legislature makes it a priority, and the [Mills] administration makes it a priority, there’s no doubt in my mind that we could get there,” he said. “I really think we could get there if we implement all the recommendations in this report, and the funding comes along with it.” 

BDN investigative reporter Sawyer Loftus may be reached at

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