Defining education — Does it include early education?

There’s agreement that too few children in Connecticut have access to quality early education programs, but the Malloy administration and advocates are butting heads on how to get to a near-universal system.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says the power to expand early education should remain with lawmakers, while advocates say they worry that lawmakers will continue to look at early education programs as ATMs when budgets are tight.

“This is a civil right and a human right,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who has a long career in early education. “We know right now there is not access in an equitable way.”

Advocates were counting on the Superior Court in Hartford to step in and require that early education be considered a constitutional obligation, but Malloy says that nowhere in the state Constitution will you find a requirement that early education be provided. He is backing a motion filed by the state’s attorney general office to exclude early education from a much broader lawsuit that charges the state has failed to adequately fund education as a whole.

“The Constitution is the Constitution … This is a legal matter,” Malloy, a lawyer himself, said, standing outside the state Senate chamber Wednesday. “The framers of the Constitution, including at its last major revision, did not anticipate early childhood education as being part of the guarantee. … You don’t have a bigger supporter of early childhood education here.”

To highlight the administration’s intentions for the future of early education, Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor went straight to the source last week: Stamford, where Malloy, the city’s former mayor, drastically expanded preschool.

“He rants about this,” Pryor said while touring one of several publicly funded preschools that Malloy helped open, the William Pitt Children’s Learning Center. “This is great. Early intervention makes all the sense in the world.”

Malloy said during both the campaign and Wednesday that the state cannot afford a universal approach. Rather, he said, he wants to launch a system where children from low-income families are provided free or affordable preschool, as he did for hundreds in Stamford.

Bridget Fox, who led the initiatives under Malloy in Stamford and is still in charge of the programs, says 15 percent of students in Stamford are showing up for school without a preschool experience. But for low-income children, it’s no longer because their parents can’t afford preschool.

Statewide, almost 20 percent of children have not attended preschool, reports the State Department of Education. 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.

But, advocates said, it’s not Malloy they are worried about. After all, he has promised to fund 1,000 new early education seats, and he has laid out a 289-page plan for early education in his federal Race to the Top application.

They worry about what future administrators and lawmakers will do to early education if it is not an entitlement.

“It shocked me,” Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, leader of the state’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, said of his surprise that Malloy was backing what could lead to a long-term decline in available early education. “It’s not that I didn’t believe people are serious in their intentions, but elections change things.”

As mayor of Stamford, Malloy was part of the coalition asking the courts to intervene in how schools — including preschool — are funded.

Malloy said he can’t ignore the Constitution. He said he will move forward “as rapidly as financial circumstances will allow us to getting to universal pre-K, not as a universally provided service to all of our citizens, but that we design a program where we step in and make sure no person is denied a pre-K because of their financial circumstances.”

But with high percentages of students still showing up for kindergarten unprepared, advocates are growing impatient and want the court to step in.

“This isn’t fair to these kids,” said Diane Kaplan DeVries, who is in charge of the coalition with the lawsuit against the state. “Early education needs to be an entitlement.”