Maine and the U.S. intentionally invest significant public dollars in K-12 and higher education. Education is a public good: students today become productive citizens in the future. Yet we spend very little on our youngest citizens during the time when we know they learn the most. This section looks at early childhood education in Maine, the years between birth and age 5.

The pandemic highlighted the tremendous need in Maine to have affordable and accessible early childhood education available to our youngest learners. Parents depended on reliable early childhood education in order to participate in the workforce. Communities came together to problem solve how to expand access for families and how to create new partnerships between providers and public schools.

Early childhood education is a complex public-private system of care and learning for children prior to when they enter kindergarten. Preschool refers to any educational/care programming available to 3- and 4-year-olds prior to kindergarten, most often found in Maine family child care programs and child care centers. Pre-K refers to publicly-funded full time or part time programming for 4-year-olds the year before kindergarten, which may be located in school districts, home-based child care, private child care centers, YMCAs, or Head Starts. State law requires all school districts to offer a voluntary public Pre-K option. Please note the Pre-K enrollment data below is from 2020.

ACCESS – Is early childhood education accessible to Maine families?

Early childhood education differs significantly from K-12 and higher education in the U.S. and in Maine. Education for our youngest learners is not guaranteed and access varies depending on geography and income.

71% of Maine children under 6 have all available caregivers in the workforce.


Early childhood education is essential for Maine businesses. Without childcare, parents can’t work.



Source: Maine KIDS COUNT (2021).

22% of Maine children live in a childcare desert.


Too many Maine families don’t have access to childcare close to home. The Center for American Progress defines a child care desert as “any census tract with more than 50 children under age 5 that contains either no child care providers or so few options that there are more than three times as many children as licensed child care slots.”

Only about one third of Maine 4-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-K.

Maine has made progress in expanding public pre-K enrollment for 4-year-olds in the past decade. After reaching nearly half of 4-year-olds enrolled in public pre-K in 2019 (47%), that number declined significantly to 35.6% amid the pandemic. Other than the public health crisis, the lack of full-day pre-K options is a big reason that not more children are enrolled.

77% of districts offer pre-K in Maine and access is expanding over time.

While 77% of districts offered public pre-K to 4-year-olds in 2019, vast disparities remain across the state in terms of which districts offer public pre-K and whether programs meet working parents’ needs. Only 9% of districts offered full-day pre-K in 2019, though recent Pre-K Expansion grants from the Department of Education should help address this in the coming years.

For more information about public pre-K in Maine, visit the Maine DOE website.

AFFORDABILITY – Is early childhood education affordable?

Childcare costs can rival the cost of monthly rent or a mortgage. Before pre-K or kindergarten, most parents must figure out where to send their children for care and education and how to pay for it on their own. While Maine has a subsidy program for low-income families, it is vastly underutilized. Even for families making median household income or above, the cost of care and education can be a huge burden.


The average cost of full-time, center-based infant care per year in Maine.

To see how this breaks down by county and type of care, see 2021 Maine Childcare Market Rate Survey.


Percent of median income the average two-parent family spends on childcare for ONE child


Percent of median income the average single-parent family spends on childcare for ONE child


QUALITY – Is early childhood education high-quality?

There are a wide range of early learning environments across Maine. Quality has been difficult to measure, however, Maine is making large strides in this area.

Steps to Stars

Note, the current childcare quality rating system for Maine, Quality for ME, will be transitioned from four steps to five stars, in a system called Rising Stars for Maine.

You can learn more about the changes here.


About 24% of Maine childcare providers are at a Step 3 or 4 of the Quality for ME rating system.



The median annual wage for Maine childcare educators was $24,030 in 2018, compared with $53,270 for Kindergarten teachers. Kindergarten teachers earned more than double what early childcare educators earned. The field is struggling to retain qualified staff.

Source: CCECAC Landscape Report (2020).


We can’t expect a stable, high-quality early childhood educator workforce without paying wages that are commensurate with the work.

chart displaying wages of various early childhood workers