Democrats unveil plan, and funding, for step toward universal pre-K

Democratic leaders unveil "Smart Start", their plan for expanding pre-kindergarten in Connecticut

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / The CT Mirror

Democratic leaders unveil "Smart Start," their plan for expanding pre-kindergarten in Connecticut.

Democratic legislative leaders announced Wednesday they intend to pass legislation that will pay for thousands more children to enroll in public schools’ preschool programs. Thousands of Connecticut students start kindergarten each fall having never attended preschool and trailing their peers academically.

“This promises to be an answer to a problem that has plagued us for too long,” said Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

The lawmakers’ plan – labeled “Smart Start” — calls for $10 million to be spent next school year, and in each of the following nine years — to provide an as yet undetermined number of new seats in public school classrooms taught by certified teachers with college degrees. Every school district that can “demonstrate unmet need” will be eligible for funding, and districts must make children from low-income families a priority when filling the added preschool seats. Children from middle-class families could also be provided a spot, as districts could require that, based on their income, they pay tuition.

Private vs. public preschools?

The proposal drew immediate criticism from Republican legislators and the leader of the largest organization in Connecticut representing licensed day care programs.

“We have huge concerns,” said Gerry Pastor, a leader of the Connecticut Child Care Association, who owns six private day care centers, in the Farmington Valley, Wallingford and Windsor. “There is unquestionably capacity [to increase attendance] at private programs.”

Pastor said that over the years, as public schools began offering preschool or increasing preschool enrollment, attendance at many private programs has dropped, and these centers have suffered.

Sen. Steve Cassano, D-Manchester, is well aware of the trend. His wife has owned and run a private day care center for 30 years.

“As we have increased programs in the public school system, we have seen a reduction, closings in fact, of many small businesses,” he said during a news conference with his colleagues at the state Capitol as they unveiled the one-page plan.

Cassano said he’s confident this initiative would not hurt those small day care businesses, and that the centers “would work in conjunction” with the public schools.

But Pastor and Rep. Tim Ackert, the ranking minority member on the legislature’s Education Committee, want to see some sort of safeguard adopted that ensures this expansion would not draw on the families now enrolled in private programs.

“Even the slightest movement could have dramatic and devastating consequences,” Pastor said during an interview.

About half of the 300 programs that Pastor represents are accredited by, or close to being accredited by, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an accomplishment legislators consider a mark of a program’s quality.

“There are so many great programs that are privately run,” said Ackert, a Coventry Republican. “Let’s not forget about what’s out there already. They are businesses.”

Democratic legislators said the goal is to enroll children who would not otherwise attend quality preschools.

“We are not looking to displace folks who are in the private provider pre-kindergarten programs. The whole foundation of this program is to meet unmet need,” said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

Last school year, districts reported that as many as 57 percent of their students had never attended a pre-kindergarten program. (See district-by-district breakdown, above, on interactive map.)

Sen. Andrea Stillman, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee, said an expansion of pre-K seats in public schools is appropriate since classrooms are becoming vacant as the state’s school-aged population continues to decline.

“There are so many great programs that are privately run,” said Rep. Tim Ackert. “Let’s not forget about what’s out there already. They are businesses.”

“There are so many great programs that are privately run,” said Rep. Tim Ackert. “Let’s not forget about what’s out there already. They are businesses.”

“We don’t want empty classrooms. We don’t want unemployed teachers,” said the Waterford Democrat.

The United Way of Connecticut, through its 2-1-1 phone number, helps direct families seeking child care to facilities with available spots. The organization reported that the 262 public school programs in their database had 154 open seats last fall. This figure does not include all public school preschool programs, and the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood has not tracked that information.

The legislators’ plan also provides $10 million a year over the next 10 years so districts can cover the construction and infrastructure costs of opening additional pre-school classrooms. The state would borrow the $100 million for construction costs through bonding.

The lawmakers’ emphasis on public schools differs significantly from Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to create “universal access” to preschool for students from low-income families over the next five years.

The Democratic governor’s plan would have expanded preschool enrollment in high-quality public and private programs, and direct all of the funding to low-performing, high-need districts. Under his plan, the state would have spent $13.8 million in the coming year to give 1,020 children a spot in pre-kindergarten. By the fifth year, 4,010 more students would be enrolled in pre-kindergarten programs, at an additional cost to the state of $51.1 million a year.

The Democratic legislators’ plan would provide $10 million a year for each of the next 10 years to cover operating costs. The number of students this would cover each year “remains to be seen,” Williams said. Over the 10-years, Williams said it could cover as many as 50,000 children.

Paying for the proposal

Added state spending for various programs (such as expanding funding for pre-kindergarten) likely faces an uphill climb. The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis says there is already a $1 billion deficit built into fiscal 2016 state finances, which begins July 2015.

Malloy has said he is confident that rising tax revenues tied to an improving economy will help close that gap, but his Democratic colleagues in the legislature are more conservative by reining in the amount he wants to spend to expand preschool.

In addition, Malloy’s plan would send money to expand preschool programs only in the lowest-performing districts or districts with more students from low-income families.

“We know that so many of our towns beyond the priority and alliance schools have pockets of poverty,” said Williams. “So we want to reach out to all of the children who do not have quality pre-K experiences.”

Malloy told reporters after an event in Hartford Wednesday, minutes after the legislators released their proposal, that he didn’t yet have an opinion on what they are proposing.

“I don’t know anything about their plan. I know that they just announced something. I’m wiling to work with everybody on universal pre-K. I’m the guy who brought that phrase to Connecticut’s State Capitol,” he said.

Funding for expanded preschool opportunities is already provided in next year’s budget that the legislature’s Appropriations Committee voted out of committee.

However, for the remaining nine years, Democratic legislators propose tapping $10 million a year from the millions of dollars the state receives annually from this national settlement made with the tobacco industry over the health risks associated with smoking.

Over the last five years, the state has received between $121.4 million and $154.2 million a year from the settlement, reports the Office of Fiscal Analysis. However, almost all of that money has helped close state budget deficits, while anywhere from $1.3 million to $24.3 million a year has gone to the state tobacco board. The board helps launch anti-smoking advertisements, provides cessation programs for smokers, or covers their other health needs.

This fiscal year, the state is expecting $192.8 million from the settlement, $12.7 million more than originally budgeted for. But legislators are already counting on $12.5 million of that extra funding to cover the cost next fiscal year to expand afterschool programs and for mental health and substance abuse programs, leaving just $200,000 to go to anti-smoking-related programs, the nonpartisan budget office reports.

“Why are we taking those dollars and misappropriating them? We should support education through money that we actually have,” Ackert said. “We keep sweeping funds that are dedicated. It’s disingenuous.”

But Democratic leaders said preschool is a good use of the settlement money.

“I don’t think there is any greater investment in the health of our children,” said Williams, the Senate president pro tem.

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