When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed providing “universal access” to preschool, he said it would cost the state an additional $51.1 million a year.
When Democratic legislators released their plans two months later to provide “universal access,” they said it would cost the state $10 million a year.
Why such a huge difference?
It is not because the legislators’ proposal would enroll fewer students. Malloy’s plan ensures that 4,010 more students would land a seat in preschool each year. The legislators’ plan, they say, would help about 5,000 more children enroll in prekindergarten annually, or 50,000 children over 10 years.
The key difference: Legislators want to team up with districts and parents to split the costs of enrolling more students in preschool. And while the governor’s plan limits the new funding to students from districts with high concentrations of low-income families, the legislators’ plan would make funds available to suburban districts as well.
“It’s much more sustainable to do it with partnerships,” Sen. Beth Bye, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee, said in an interview. “If a district is planning to have a preschool [classroom] fully funded by the state, this is not the path.”
The legislators’ plan – which is still being finalized privately by Democratic leaders – would provide a $75,000 a year competitive grant for districts interested in opening an additional pre-kindergarten classroom in a public school.
Legislators have acknowledged this grant alone would not cover the full costs of ensuring there is one certified teacher for every 10 children, and that the programs receive national accreditation within three years, as they propose.
“For us to reach [50,000 children], there would need to be a fair number of parents to pay some form of tuition,” said Rep. Andy Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, House chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.
A reliance on tuition dollars would mean that some of the newly created subsidized spots would go to families more capable of paying. The funding in Malloy’s plan goes entirely to pay for expanding preschool in districts with high concentrations of poverty.
However, this new grant backed by Democratic leaders would go to towns that “can demonstrate an unmet need for pre-school,” and the programs “must prioritize space” for students from low-income families.
That relies on districts coming up with money to help make this a reality.
“There may be towns that could kick something in in the very next fiscal year,” said Senate Pro Tem Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, when unveiling the plan earlier this month.
Finding additional funding to expand preschool may be a difficult task for the districts already struggling to pay for its existing programs.
“While [universal] early childhood education is a magnificent goal, if it ends up being paid for by local taxpayers, it’s a failure before it starts,” Ed McKeon, a local school board member in Middletown, told three state legislators Monday during their appearance on the public affairs radio show “Where We Live.”
Bye, Senate chair of the Appropriations Committee, said the intent is not to shut out districts like Middletown and the other lowest-achieving districts in Connecticut from expanding enrollment.
“It’s just another option if districts want it,” she said, pointing to other education aid the state provides those districts if they want to expand preschool enrollment.
There is no doubt the Democratic leaders’ proposal will help suburban districts like West Hartford — where one in seven kindergarten students shows up for school without attending preschool — or rural districts like Willington — where one in four kindergarteners don’t attend preschool.
“We do hear that there is unmet need,” said Michelle Doucette, the vice chairwoman of the Willington Board of Education, during an interview. “We are not able to expand because we don’t want to raise taxes to do that.”
She said that having a hybrid of new state funding mixed with tuition for those that can afford it may make opening a new pre-kindergarten classroom a real possibility.
“In my mind, that’s a feasible model,” she said.