Extra Credit? Malloy’s Race to Top bid has a surprise

The administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is sweetening its application for a $50 million federal grant under the Race to the Top program by pledging to expand preschool programs, something not required under the competition rules. Call it a bit of extra credit.

“I am committed to fund one thousand new early childhood education slots targeted to high need children,” Malloy wrote on the coverletter of the state’s 289-page application for a grant to reform the state’s early education programs.

early education

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says the state will add 1,000 preschool seats

What was required, and is included in the state’s bid, are plans to begin rating some early childcare programs, assessing students when they enter kindergarten, increase education requirements of those teaching these children and better coordinating programs across the state agencies guiding the various early education programs.

Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor signed off on the application last week and legislative leaders also wrote U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in support, hoping the state’s luck with their first two failed attempts at Race to the Top money will change this time around. Those losses spurred a wave of criticism from education advocates and even Malloy, who was a gubernatorial candidate at the time, that the application was not bold enough and even sections were left blank.

This additional 1,000 seats the state has pledged to create will come with a pricetag of $12 million annually, starting with the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2013.

“We want to show that we are truly committed to expanding early education programs,” said Liz Donohue, the lead staffer in the governor’s office for the application. “The demand for them is huge, and this would go a long way to meeting that.”

The State Department of Education reports that almost 20 percent of children entering kindergarten during the 2009-2010 school year had not attended preschool or another early education program.

And in urban districts those rates are much higher, reports the Early Childhood Alliance and Connecticut Voices for Children. In Bridgeport, 35 percent of students show up for kindergarten with no early education, 32 percent in Hartford and 40 percent in Waterbury.

Officials acknowledge that these additional seats will not get the state to the State Department of Education’s stated goal of having every child showing up for kindergarten with a preschool education, but it will help.

“It’s a sizable step forward,” said Allan B. Taylor, the chairman of the State Board of Education. He estimates 1,000 additional seats is about one-tenth of the additional seats the state needs to ensure everyone shows up for kindergarten better prepared because they have received a preschool education.

Donohue says these additional seats will be aimed at filling the void in areas of the state that high-quality preschools are most needed, but it has not been determined which districts in the state will benefit the most.

Earlier this week, Malloy issued an executive order that created a top-level post in his Office of Policy and Management that will deal with all things early childhood, and create some recommendations to better coordinate the system by July 2013.

Advocates have expressed concerns about the hodgepodge of state agencies coordinating the state’s early childhood programs and have lobbied for a new agency.

The state will learn in the next two months whether their application has landed them the $50 million prize. Whatever the outcome, Donohue said the state now at least has a platform to work off of to create an improved early education system.

“Race to the Top will allow us to accelerate those plans,” she said, noting it may take the state a little bit longer for these initiatives to come to fruition if the state does not win.

The state will be competing against 34 other states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, reports the U.S. Department of Education.