Malloy promises to preserve early childhood education funding

Despite a looming $3.3 billion state deficit, Democrat Dan Malloy Tuesday  became the second major-party gubernatorial candidate to promise advocates he will not cut funding for early childhood education programs.

“The safety net needs to be protected, and by the way, you all are that safety net,” Malloy told a room full of representatives from numerous school systems, childcare centers and regional early childhood organizations from across the state.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Tom Foley also promised the same group – the Early Childhood Alliance – last week that he would not cut funding for early childhood programs.

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Dan Malloy talks with Kathy Queen, director of Wallingford Community Daycare, and Mary E. Cechinato, of Torrington Child Care Center

But Malloy went one step further, outlining his goal of providing more money for 4-year-olds from low-income families to attend pre-school. As mayor of Stamford, Malloy helped open two preschool centers with certified teachers for almost 500 low-income families.

“We’ve seen remarkable gains from these children because they started school earlier,” said Bridget Fox, chairwoman of Stamford’s School Readiness program, noting that reading test scores for low-income students have increased since the centers opened 11 years ago.

Fred Jackson, member of the Bridgeport Alliance for Young Children, commended Malloy for his work in Stamford, but asked him “given the financial situation in this state, how can we even begin thinking of moving towards that statewide?”

Malloy said he recognizes the financial mess the state finds itself in, which is why he has set an eight-year goal to have preschool in 19 priority school districts for all low-income students.

“I think it’s a place where we need to start, and properly funding those priority school districts so that they fill that void is extremely important,” he said. “But understanding that poor people aren’t simply living in 19 different communities, you expand that program over time and as rapidly as possible.”

Connecticut does spend almost $74 million each year to subsidize preschool programs in low-income school districts, but the State Department of Education estimates there is a need for about 13,000 additional slots — an expansion that is estimated to cost $100 million.

The early childhood alliance reports that almost 80 percent of the children in the state attended preschool during the 2006-07 school year, the most recent year reported. However, in urban areas the percentages are much lower – 65 percent in Bridgeport, 68 percent in Hartford and 60 percent in Waterbury – than in higher-income areas where percentages are in the mid-90s.

“That’s a problem,” Malloy said. “So much of the table is already set by the time a child reaches kindergarten.”

Throughout Malloy’s hour-long conversation with the early child advocates, he reiterated five times that state subsidies for their programs will not be cut and told them to “pray for a stronger economy” so he could send more money their way if elected.

Based on preliminary budget estimates, Connecticut Voices for Children says the state spent $213.8 million in fiscal 2010 on early care and early education programs — a 6 percent drop from the previous year and an 11 percent decline since 2002, adjusted for inflation.

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Dan Malloy talks to early childhood advocates, as running mate Nancy Wyman and alliance leader Ann Pratt and Maggie Adair listen

Maggie Adair, deputy director of the Connecticut Association for Human Services, said funding needs to increase soon for early education, or “these children are never going to catch up.”