Portland to rekindle public pre-K discussion: How to provide universal access without undercutting private preschools

Students in one of Portland’s current pre-kindergarten programs. (Courtesy of Portland Public Schools)

On Dec. 28 the BDN ran my story about the proliferation of pre-kindergarten programs in Maine and how it’s impacting statewide student population counts and, to the degree it can be measured, the flows of state subsidies.

A quick excerpt from that story to set the stage for this blog post:

While reams of research highlight the benefits of early childhood education, there has been no widespread discussion in Maine about the addition of a 14th year of public school.

In Portland, that widespread discussion — at least in terms of the city’s schools — is being restarted in earnest.

The district has scheduled two community conversations to update the public on its progress toward a goal to provide universal pre-kindergarten in Maine’s largest city by 2016, as well as to seek input on the challenges faced, such as funding shortages and the need for more age-appropriate spaces for the programs.

The Portland Public Schools currently have five pre-kindergarten classrooms in four locations.

To expand that access in the coming years, the school system is looking toward what a news release described as additional “collaborations between the district and area preschools.”

For an idea of what that might look like, one must only glance up Route 1 a little ways and review the program launched in recent years by the Bath-area Regional School Unit 1, considered to be a model in Maine for how to grow pre-kindergarten availability.

The potential conflict, as RSU 1 and any burgeoning public pre-K provider might know, is that providing 4-year-olds with publicly funded education threatens to undercut already existing private preschools in the area, which previously were competing in a marketplace that didn’t include an essentially “free” competitor. (I realize publicly funded schools aren’t free, but if you’re a parent whose taxes are paying in part for a new universal pre-K program anyway, the choice is between sending your children to a program that’s already been paid for and a program you’d have to pay additional money for. There’s a tremendous financial advantage to picking the public option.)

How RSU 1 handled that conflict was by folding many of the local private and nonprofit pre-K programs into its own offerings. Assuming the pre-existing local programs met certain quality standards, those programs were deputized as official RSU 1 pre-K sites, allowed to continue doing what they were doing, and the tuition bills for the pre-K students were paid through the district pre-K budget (some of which is, itself, reimbursed by the state through annual subsidies).

RSU 1 also has some in-house programs as well, it’s worth mentioning. Whether the Portland Public Schools will adopt a similar approach in the coming years remains to be seen — the community likely still has a say in the matter, if the upcoming forums are any indication.

The aforementioned community conversations will take place on Jan. 17 at 3:45 p.m. at Riverton Elementary School, 1600 Forest Avenue, and on Feb. 28 at 3:45 p.m. at Portland Arts and Technology High School, 196 Allen Avenue.

Seth Koenig

About Seth Koenig

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.