Connecticut’s early education plan gets a C, no federal funds

Gov. Malloy visits a preschool in Meriden with his director of early education and education commissioner

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CT Mirror

Gov. Malloy visits a preschool in Meriden with his director of early education and education commissioner

The U.S. Department of Education has rejected Connecticut’s request for $37.5 million in Race to the Top funds aimed at overhauling day care centers and preschools by attempting to ensure they are safe and providing educational value.

“The State does not present a High Quality Plan to improve the effectiveness and retention of Early Childhood Educators who work with Children with High Needs, with the goal of improving child outcomes,” one of the three federal judges who graded Connecticut’s application said.

Over the past two years, 20 other states have won a combined more than $1 billion in federal money to fund early education reforms. This was Connecticut’s second bid for money to improve early child care programs and its fourth failed attempt to land Race to the Top money.

“It’s a competition,” said Myra Jones Taylor, the executive director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood. “There was always the one guarantee that not everyone would be funded.”

Included in the state’s lengthy application was the “highest priority” to reform the Care 4 Kids program, in which the state subsidizes child care costs for low-income families so parents can work. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration is concerned that the state writes blank checks with no requirements or oversight of these facilities. Federal auditors reported earlier this fall that every one of the home day care providers they inspected had health or safety problems.

The administration’s proposal included a plan for the state to launch a quality ratings system for day care centers that parents can easily review when they are choosing where to send their children. Most providers that receive state funding would have had to participate in the rating system to receive state money.

The five-tier rating system, which would have launched in March, would have required, at a minimum, that every center receiving state funding be licensed to ensure it was safe and that staff had had the appropriate background checks. The state also promised in its application to seek a change in state law to require that every facility be inspected annually. The state currently inspects some centers just once every three years.

The other tiers -– state reimbursements would be higher for program with higher ratings — would have required programs to adopt high education standards and to ensure its teaching staff had high qualifications.

The three-judge panel gave Connecticut a C on its proposals. In addition to the state’s failure to present ‘a High Quality Plan” on improving and retaining strong teachers, a judge said, “Also, the state does not provide strong evidence (e.g. available evaluations, developmental theory, or data or information) as to why these policies and incentives will be effective in improving outcomes for Children with High Needs.”

Judges’ other concerns were about the state’s ability to sustain the initiatives after federal funding dries up and the lack of support for early educators to improve in the plan. Of the 16 states that applied for this round of funding, Connecticut came in 11th place for its proposals.

(See the judge’s full comments here.)

Jones Taylor said that even though the federal government denied funding for the state’s plans, the initiatives are not yet dead.

“This gave us a blueprint moving forward,” she said during an interview. “We are looking at where we can use our existing resources.”

Her agency’s budget for the current fiscal year is $128.5 million.

Each school year, 30 percent of kindergarten students in the state’s cities and other low-income districts show up for school with no preschool experience. In all the other communities, about 10 percent of students lack preschool experience, the State Department of Education reports. The Malloy administration’s proposal sought to enroll 9,500 of these needy students in “high-quality” preschool programs by 2017.

The plan focused on providing financial incentives for day care centers and preschools to improve, and giving parents information on how schools ranked according to safety and educational standards.

Jones Taylor was noncommittal when asked if the ratings would still be launched this spring. “We will have to look and figure that out. Informing parents is a top priority,” she said.

The state also promised in its application to seek a change in state law to require that every facility be inspected annually. The state currently inspects some centers just once every three years and officials have said 11 additional staff members would have to be hired — at a cost of $1.4 million a year — to conduct annual audits.

With the state’s failed but to land federal funding for these new positions, Jones Taylor said she plans to ask state legislators in the upcoming legislative session to approve the measure.

However, even when facilities are inspected, it is rare for Connecticut daycares to lose their licenses. Last year, eight of the state’s 2,470 licensed family day care home providers lost their license or voluntarily surrendered them after problems were revealed. Seven of the 20 inspected homes with violations highlighted in the federal audit had been inspected by the state in the previous 12 months, and had kept their licenses.

Malloy was highly critical of the state’s first two failed Race to the Top bids for $175 million for primary and secondary education reforms under previous admininistrations, saying the state “embarrassed ourselves” with subpar applications. Most of those reforms have since been delayed.

On Thursday, a spokeswoman for the governor called the most recent rejection a “huge disappointment.”

“The Governor’s committed to improving early education care quality in Connecticut and increasing families’ access to high-quality early education programs,” Samaia Hernandez said in a statement. “A supplemental award would have helped us accomplish those goals, but our work certainly doesn’t stop nor does it hinge on our application.”

Judge’s Comments.
State’s application.