State learns price of universal preschool: $264 million

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has repeatedly said that he supports offering high-quality preschool to children whose parents cannot afford to send them.

On Wednesday his administration learned just how much it would cost to provide that universal access in the state’s poorest districts: $43.8 million a year, plus $220.6 million to build the classroom space.

“That’s a lot of money,” said Theresa Hopkins-Staten, vice chairwoman of the State Board of Education.

An estimated 4,965 children — or one of  every six 3- and 4-year-olds — in the state’s poorest and lowest-achieving districts do not attend preschool each year because the existing state-subsidized preschool programs are full, according to a report prepared by the State Department of Education.

“And it’s not the entire picture,” Harriet Feldlaufer, an official with the state department, told the state board at its meeting Wednesday. She said that while the majority of students priced out of preschool are from these 19 districts, there are still many in other districts as well.

Malloy’s education commissioner would not say whether the administration will be asking the legislature for new funding to bring down the number of students showing up for kindergarten without preschool.

“To be determined,” Commissioner of Education Stefan Pryor said. The department will make their budget requests to the governor’s budget office by mid-October. The next legislative session begins in January.

Last school year, 6,400 students in Connecticut — 16 percent — showed up to kindergarten having spent no time in a preschool. Half were from the state’s 19 poorest districts, reports the State Department of Education.

Connecticut has more 3- and 4-year olds attending preschool than every state except New Jersey, which has a court order requiring it to provide universal preschool access in low-income districts, according to the College Board’s annual progress report.

Calling it a down payment towards universal access, Connecticut state legislators and Malloy this year provided $6.8 million in new funding to offer an additional 1,000 subsidized preschool seats.

Several state board members said during Wednesday’s meeting that while they support early education, they need proof that these are quality preschool programs before they can support funding more money for them. It is an issue they have raised before.

“It doesn’t seem like we are offering much if we can’t attest to the quality,” said Patricia Luke, a state board member from East Hartford.

“Are our children benefiting from that money already spent?” asked Staten.

Department officials responded that they do not know if there has been an impact. However, four years ago the decision was made for the State Department of Education to begin tracking the progress of individual students. Each child was assigned a student number, as with Social Security numbers. This included the 9,000 4-year-olds in state-funded preschools.

Those 4-year-olds last year were in third grade, and for the first time took state standardized tests to measure how they’re doing in math, reading and writing. Those test results have not yet been used to compare how students who received preschool have done compared to their peers. It is unclear if they will.

The state is also in the process of building a four-tier rating system of preschool and daycare programs. When that will go live has not yet been determined.

Staten said she is frustrated that for the last several years the state board has been asking for details on the quality and outcomes of these early education programs to no avail.

“We haven’t really gotten very far,” she said.