Universal preschool headed for Connecticut?

President Obama is calling for universal preschool for every 4-year-old.

“I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” Obama said during his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. “Let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

Nationwide, 28 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in publicly run preschool programs, reports the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Connecticut, 13 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in Head Start or School Readiness preschool programs.

Obama’s blueprint calls for federal support to ensure family income is not a barrier.

“The President is proposing to work with Congress to provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-old children with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach hundreds of thousands of additional middle class children, and incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies, so that all children enter kindergarten prepared for academic success,” the plan reads.

Almost 6,500 students in Connecticut — or 20 percent — showed up for kindergarten in the fall of 2011 with no time spent in preschool, either public or private. The state’s 19 poorest districts typically had lower participation rates in early education than their neighbors, reports the State Department of Education.

Last year, one in four students showed up for kindergarten in need of a “large degree” of help with numeracy skills, and one in five students needed significant help with literacy, the State Department of Education reports.

While Connecticut lawmakers recently expanded the number of children offered enrollment in state-funded preschool programs, municipal leaders are asking the courts to require the state to fully fund universal preschool. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has opposed such a move, saying he wants the state to get there on its own by providing universal preschool access to low-income students.

The Malloy administration also attempted to land federal Race to the Top funding to pay for the governor’s early education initiatives. When the state didn’t make the cut, legislators and Malloy found the funding to create a rating system for early care programs and still offer 1,000 more children spots in preschool.

Obama — whose proposal Tuesday and Wednesday was short on specific details on how exactly he wants to expand preschool — said the initiative would not contribute to the nation’s deficit. His focus on early education during his nationally televised address is unique among past State of the Union Speeches. The First Five Years Fund, an early education advocacy group, reports that their review of State of the Union platforms over the last 50 years found that universal preschool has never been mentioned.

Connecticut Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor told the legislature’s Education Committee Wednesday that high-quality “early childhood education is essential” but added, “That’s easier said than done.”

The Malloy administration is proposing that a new state agency be created to coordinate the various early education and day care programs that receive state and federal funding. Pryor said that by putting these programs in one agency, the quality of the programs can be improved.

“It is absolutely critical that we make such investments” in high quality programs, he said.