The co-chair of the state’s budget-writing committee is proposing requiring the state’s poorest school districts provide full-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten for all low-income students by July 2013 — with the state and communities sharing the bill.

Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said early education is key to helping close the education achievement gap that has long plagued the state. Harp, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, is proposing the early education expansion as leader of the Achievement Gap Task Force.

“We see universal pre-kindergarten as an essential part of a sound educational foundation,” Harp said. “We are convinced full-day kindergarten will also contribute to early success.”

Of the 50 states, Connecticut has the largest achievement gap separating low-income children from their more well-to-do classmates on U.S. Department of Education tests of reading and mathematics. The gap separating minority and white students also is among the largest in the nation.

acheivement gap task force Report

Sen. Toni Harp with members of the Achievement Gap Task Force: ‘It’s a moral problem in our state’

This chronic disparity in academic achievement has perplexed educators for years, and the task force was established to find solutions to the problem.

“This is something we need to take care of now,” said Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven and chair of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus. “The reality is we are looking at a budget deficit that has us worried, significantly worried. But if we don’t work on this issue in a very quick and efficacious way we will not be able to deal with the problems coming down the road.”

The Early Childhood Alliance reports that almost 80 percent of the children in the state attended preschool during the 2006-07 school year, the most recent year reported. However, in urban areas the percentages are much lower — 65 percent in Bridgeport, 68 percent in Hartford and 60 percent in Waterbury — than in higher-income areas where percentages are in the mid-90s.

The Education Committee is hearing testimony today on the proposed changes — which in addition to mandating early education in the state’s 19 identified “priority districts”, recommends that districts expand the school day and require districts with identified achievement gaps to submit a biannual report on what they are doing to rectify the problem.

Connecticut already spends almost $70 million each year to subsidize preschool programs in low-income school districts for 9,600 students, but the State Department of Education estimates there is a need for about 6,000 additional slots — an expansion that is estimated to cost $59.1 million a year.

Most of the priority districts already do offer full-day kindergarten, but for five districts this would be a new requirement.

This “will increase the cost of education in these five towns,” Interim Education Commissioner George Coleman testified, listing the districts as Ansonia, Bristol, Danbury, Meriden and Norwich.

“We understand this is hard. We understand there are going to be short term costs that are incurred,” said Paul Wessel a member of the task force and leader of Connecticut Parent Power, a coalition of parent advocates from around the state. But, he said, “The payback is extraordinary.”

As chair of the Appropriations Committee, Harp will be responsible for recommending in the committee’s proposed budget how much funding should be dedicated to this initiative. In Gov. Dannel P. Malloy‘s proposed budget he reduced funding grants to these low-income districts by $7 million a year.

“It is a moral problem in our state… We can make progress,” Harp said, adding that she thinks it has to be a joint funding effort between the state and the towns.

But not everyone is supportive; including the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education and the Connecticut Association of School Administrators, who testified this will increase costs substantially.

“This requirement has serious cost implications both in terms of staffing and facilities,” CABE officials wrote in their testimony.

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