When it comes to preschool education, New Jersey and Connecticut are a tale of two states.
In New Jersey, the courts mandated access to preschool for every child in the state's poorest school districts.
In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wants the state to get there on its own.He is proposing an expansion of state-funded preschool, even as city and town leaders are asking the courts to require a massive expansive of education funding, including for preschool.
But Ellen Frede, who started the universal preschool program as a top official in the New Jersey Department of Education, said that while it's great to have a governor who supports early education, it's much easier for universal preschool to become a reality when it's a requirement."We simply have to get it done," Malloy told a roomful of early education advocates and experts Thursday at early education forum hosted by the Connecticut Mirror.
"Court orders are really nice things," said Frede, a national early education expert from New York-based Acelero Learning. "We improved quality, and we served more kids in a quick amount of time."
Before the 1998 New Jersey Supreme Court decision, in a case known as Abbott v. Burke, the state was providing preschool to about 6,000 children in the state's poorest districts, Frede said. A few years after the decision, nearly 50,000 children were being served.
"It was all about money," she said, noting that the legislature had no choice but to pour millions of dollars into early education.
The New Jersey high court ordered the state to offer preschool classes to 3- and 4-year-olds in 31 of the state's poorest school districts, resulting in an extensive expansion of education spending.
In 2010, New Jersey spent $577 million in state funds on preschool education, enrolling about one of every five of the state's 3-year-olds and one of four 4-year-olds, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).
In comparison, Connecticut spent about $83 million for state-funded preschool programs in 2010, reaching 7 percent of 3-year-olds and 13 percent of 4-year-olds, NIEER reported.
Overall, the state subsidizes day care and preschool for 32,000 three- and four-year olds for a total cost of $225 million, according to Connecticut Voices for Children. However, thousands a children are still showing up to kindergarten with no preschool, reports the State Department of Education.
"I'll be the first to tell you that's not enough," Malloy said at Thursday's forum.
Malloy has proposed spending an additional $4 million to add 500 high-quality preschool spots for children in the state's poorest cities and towns by this fall -- what he called "another down payment on what is my personal commitment to universal access" to pre-kindergarten programs.
Malloy has said that nowhere in the state Constitution is there a requirement to provide preschool education. He is backing a motion filed by the state's attorney general to exclude preschool from a much broader lawsuit that charges that the state has failed to adequately fund education as a whole.
"The framers of the Constitution, including at its last major revision, did not anticipate early childhood education as being part of the guarantee," Malloy said during an interview days after the motion was filed.
Ellen Camhi, a State Board of Education member who attended Thursday's forum, said a court order might be helpful.
"I would love if we had it because we would have no excuses" not to provide universal preschool, she said.
The issue of whether states have to fund preschool has been raised in pending court cases in other states, including Colorado and North Carolina, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.
"There's a trend toward inclusion of preschool in the school finance...lawsuits. I think it's too early to know what the result of that will be," he said during a telephone interview Friday.
Closing the gap
At Thursday's forum at The Lyceum in Hartford, Malloy alluded to his efforts to create universal access to preschool programs in Stamford when he was that city's mayor.
He said that high quality preschool classes can help improve the lagging overall academic performance of children in the state's poorest cities and towns.
On national reading and mathematics tests, low-income children in Connecticut lag further behind their more affluent classmates than in any other state.
"This is not an area we want to lead," the governor said.
Malloy drew praise from forum panelists for his efforts to expand preschool programs, but one leading national expert also urged the state to restructure its entire approach to early childhood education.
Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College, Columbia University, said Connecticut should develop a more coherent system to govern what is now a hodgepodge of programs for preschoolers.
She said the state should create "a durable financing scheme" to support a system that has authority and responsibility to oversee early childhood education. Kagan, who is also an adjunct professor at Yale University's Child Study Center, said states such as Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Washington have created more centralized early childhood education systems.
Panelists also gave Connecticut high marks for its approach to training educators for early childhood programs, but said low pay leads to high turnover. "Our employees are tempted to go over to McDonald's where they often can earn more than they can in early childhood centers," Kagan said.
Early education teachers with bachelor's degrees in community-based programs earn an average starting salary of $26,200, Connecticut Charts-A-Course reports. But only about half of those teaching in the state's School Readiness programs have a degree -- the rest of the teachers typically make minimum wage, or close to it.
Economist Fred Carstensen told forum participants that investment in early childhood programs produces substantial long-term economic gains, producing a greater rate of return than that of similar investment in the private sector.
"Society captures a very large share of that through lower incarceration, lower welfare costs ... Education, by its nature, has these very powerful external impacts," said Carstensen, a University of Connecticut professor and director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis.
Nevertheless, he said, "Early childhood [education] is rarely viewed in economic development terms."
Editor's Note: Next week, The Mirror will offer on its website photos, links and video of the five panelists' presentations. In addition to the three speakers mentioned in this story, the other presenters were Barbara Willer, deputy executive director for Program Recognition and Support at the Washington-based National Association for the Education of Young Children, and Irene Garneau, a teaching coach at Wintonbury Early Childhood Magnet School in Bloomfield. We will also offer a video of Wintonbury.