‘No method to madness’ of early education spending

A week after the U.S. Department of Education gave the state’s early education efforts a C-minus, a new study concludes that the system is underfunded, ill-coordinated and insufficiently monitored to know what the state is getting for its annual investment of $224.6 million.

“As our data amply show, there is no method to the madness of Connecticut’s publicly-funded early care 
and education programs and services,” concluded a progress report issued Thursday by Connecticut Voices for Children, a non-profit research-and-advocacy group based in New Haven.

Voices says early education, which Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has called a key to improving public education, “is currently a patchwork of multiple funding streams, controlled by multiple agencies, with varied reporting and eligibility requirements and inconsistent and insufficient data collection.”

early ed chart

Source: Connecticut Voices for Children

Last week, state officials were quick to point out how badly early education programs are operating following  rejection of their entry in the federal Race to the Top competition, even though other rating groups say Connecticut measures well against other states.

The College Board puts Connecticut in second place for how many three- and four-year-olds attend early education programs. And the number of three-year-olds the state pays for preschool is also among the top. A scorecard from the National Institute for Early Education Research also shows favorable rankings, placing Connecticut second in spending for early education and ninth for access to preschool for three year olds.

But the report card that mattered in the competition for $50 million in federal Race to the Top money to overhaul early education programs was issued by a panel assembled by the U.S. Department of Education. It gave the state a C minus, or a 70 percent, knocking the state out of the race.

Malloy blamed the rejection of the failure by previous administrations to improve and monitor the system.

“Our state did precious little to move the ball forward on early childhood education, and I think we’re being punished for it,” Malloy told reporters last week.

In its new progress report, Voices for Children offers a similar assessment.

“It’s the legacy we are left with after a number of years without adequate investments and the lack of a system that puts together all the programs we do offer,” said Sarah Esty, a policy fellow at Voices and author of the report.

State and federal funding for early education in Connecticut has dropped by $25 million a year to $224 million — about 10 percent after adjusting for inflation — over the last nine years, according to the report. Additionally, one in four children from low-income families do not receive- federal or state-provided subsidies for preschool.

“These disparities continue to exist. The state has not significantly narrowed this over time,” Esty said.

The College Board report says while a major gap between Caucasian children and minority children attending preschool programs exists, the state ranks at the top in the percent of black and Hispanic children that do attend early childhood programs. Sixty-seven percent of Caucasian children attend programs compared to 59 percent of black children and 51 percent of Hispanic children.

But Benjamin Barnes, the state’s top budget official as the secretary of policy and management, already eying a major shift in the Care 4 Kids program, the state’s largest program for young children.

The state spends $100 million a year through the Care 4 Kids program to pay for daycare for 21,000 children a month so their parents can go to work, without necessarily educating the young children. That’s almost half of what the state spend on early childhood programs.

Barnes sees this spending as a missed opportunity.

“It is a big pot of money. Down the road I see us rolling out education principles for that program,” Barnes said. “It’s a logical next step.”

Care 4 Kids provides funding to thousands of home daycare providers and has no education requirements. But transforming it to an education program instead of just daycare would have a cost, Barnes said.

“Of course there would be a cost to bring it up to scale. The benefits in the long run are really great though and would be well worth it,” he said.

Esty agrees.

“Quality does cost money,” Esty said. “Right now, if you want to increase quality you would have to cut down on slots” provided through Care 4 Kids. And she added, “We need both: more access and more quality.”

The state lost the most points on the Race to the Top scorecard on it’s plans to begin providing more high-quality programs. The National Institute for Early Education Research report card puts Connecticut in the middle of the pack for the quality of the programs it provides.

Barnes said he hopes the state soon refocus this program responsible for almost half of the early program spending in Connecticut while still allowing parents to work. And with Malloy promising to devout the upcoming session to education reform, Barnes said it is a perfect opportunity to rethink this program.

“I hope to leverage that money for some education outcomes,” Barnes said.

Voices concludes the state needs more data, as well as more resources.

“We continue to have insufficient data to determine the extent of the impact that receiving a state or federal early care and education on subsidy has on a child’s later school success,” the group said. “We also lack sufficient data to determine which programs and services are having the greatest impact or why.”