Legislation would create new preschool agency

State lawmakers and child care advocates are proposing creation of a new state agency to fix what they call a confusing, expensive and burdensome hodgepodge of preschool and child care programs.

State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, is drawing up legislation to establish a Department of Early Childhood Education that would consolidate programs currently operated under five separate state agencies.

However, the proposal to add an agency similar to one that has been developed in Massachusetts comes just as Gov. Dannel Malloy is proposing to cut the number of state agencies by about one-third in the face of a deep budget crisis.

Malloy has been an outspoken proponent for expanding preschool programs, but a spokeswoman for the governor said it is unlikely he would support adding another agency “at this time.”

Nevertheless, Bye said the legislation sets a framework for re-examining preschool and child care programs and shaking up a system that is fragmented and lacks accountability.

“As a state, we don’t have a strategic vision. Where are we going with early childhood education?…For so many years, there have been so many turf battles,” said Bye, a veteran child care educator who has worked at Trinity College, St. Joseph College, the Capitol Region Education Council and elsewhere.

Bye’s remarks followed the release earlier Monday of a report by a leading child advocacy group also calling for creation of a new early childhood agency and for continued support for preschool programs.

“Our current system is a patchwork of programs that result in providers struggling to sort through multiple funding streams and families struggling to understand and navigate all of their early care and education options,” said a report by Connecticut Voices for Children.

After years of increasing support for preschool and child care programs, Connecticut saw a downturn in funding between 2009 and 2010, the report said. Educators and child care advocates hope to avoid further reductions when Malloy proposes a new state budget this week.

Colleen Flanagan, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said, “The governor looks forward to working with groups like Connecticut Voices for Children and with senators like Beth Bye who believe, as he does, that we need to be doing more to prepare our children for a rigorous K-12 educational experience…

“However, the creation of another agency of this kind at this time just isn’t something he’d likely support.”

Cyd Oppenheimer, co-author of the Connecticut Voices for Children report, said, “I know the governor is very committed to the support of early childhood education. We believe his budget will reflect that.”

Nevertheless, she added, “Just maintaining funding is not enough. We also need to make sure coordination is happening.”

Under the existing system, various child care and preschool programs are administered by agencies including state departments of education, higher education, public health, developmental services and social services.

Among other things, Bye’s proposed legislation calls for uniform reporting requirements and collection of data linked to the state’s elementary and secondary school data system.

Bye estimates the state has spent more than $1 billion since the passage of a landmark School Readiness law in 1997 but has failed to make substantial progress on improving the academic performance of many low-income and minority children. The gaps between those groups and their white and more affluent classmates remain among the largest in the nation.

“It’s criminal not to have accountability for the kids,” Bye said. Under existing arrangements, “no one is ultimately responsible for the outcome, and planning becomes difficult,” she said.

Child care and preschool officials say that the current system presents parents with a  confusing array of choices while schools and child care centers are required to fill out dozens of forms for each child who gets state funding.

“The systems are very difficult to maneuver through,” said Diane Morton, director of the School for Young Children at St. Joseph College in West Hartford.

Morton said the school receives funding from several agencies, “and not one has anything to do with the other. It’s very difficult to keep on top of it.”

Officials said the patchwork of systems makes it difficult to collect data or evaluate the effectiveness of various programs despite the heavy demand for paperwork.

“Sometimes it feels like you’re having to spend so much time meeting the different funding requirements…it takes time away from serving children and families,” said Jennifer Heath, vice president for community leadership with the United Way of Greater New Haven and co-chair of the New Haven Early Childhood Council.

The legislature is expected to hold a hearing on the proposed legislation, and Bye said she is planning several forums across the state.