Prior to the start of school this past fall, a friend’s second grade daughter told her younger sister, who was about to enter kindergarten, what to expect: “Some kids won’t know the alphabet. You see, not everyone went to a good preschool like we did.”
My friend’s daughter was right. In the 2011-12 school year, more than one-third of all children entering kindergarten in Hartford and Bridgeport reported no prior preschool experience. My friend’s daughter was also right about the implications of preschool attendance. Neurologists tell us that quality early childhood education makes a dramatic difference in healthy child development. Educators report that children who attend high-quality preschools are more likely to enter kindergarten better prepared, less likely to need special education services, less likely to be held back and more likely to graduate. And business leaders tell us that high-quality early childhood education has among the highest returns on investment of any social or educational policy.
Today in Connecticut we are on the verge of exciting changes that may improve outcomes for all of our children. On Friday evening, with overwhelming bipartisan support, including the sponsorship of the Senate president, the speaker of the House and the majority leaders in both chambers, the Senate passed a legislative proposal that, along with the pending budget, will advance and expand Connecticut’s early childhood landscape in significant ways:
It will establish – by law – an Office of Early Childhood, which will create and operate a coordinated, cohesive early care and education system. The Office will ensure that all young children and their families can easily access the high-quality services they need to be safe, thriving and successful – including, but not limited to, a “good” preschool education.
It will increase the number of children receiving subsidized preschool by more than a third. It does this by expanding School Readiness, Connecticut’s major subsidized preschool initiative, and by creating a new competitive grant program, Smart Start, which gives a financial incentive to school districts to create new pre-k classrooms.
It will reach children who do not attend preschool at all. Both the expansion of School Readiness and the implementation of Smart Start are designed to reach the 20 percent of children in our state who enter kindergarten without any preschool experience at all. The new proposal will require data collection to determine which children are not being served and what obstacles these children face in accessing preschool. In this way, the Office of Early Childhood, public school districts, and private and community-based child care providers can effectively plan how to reach this demographic.
It will enable us to serve children no matter where they live. We know there is poverty in nearly every town in Connecticut, and that children without access to preschool live throughout the state. The School Readiness expansion will reach children in towns that have the most concentrated areas of poverty, where is a clear and urgent need, while the Smart Start grant application will be open to any school district, meaning we can serve children in previously overlooked pockets of poverty.
It will ensure that every child receiving state-subsidized preschool is served in a high-quality setting. Good outcomes require good inputs. If we want to close the achievement gap, we have to ensure that we invest only in the highest quality preschools. School Readiness requires that, by 2020, all head teachers have a bachelor’s degree; Smart Start requires that all teachers be certified. Both mandate high teacher-child ratios and small class sizes. Both require that all classrooms be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, long held up as the gold standard of quality.
Ensuring that all of Connecticut’s youngest children have access to a high-quality preschool experience demands that all of us – the state, parents, school districts and private and community-based providers – work together. The new legislative proposal is now on its way to the House, where we hope our legislators will realize that passing it is the right thing – and the smart thing – to do.
Cyd Oppenheimer is a senior policy fellow at the advocacy group Connecticut Voices for Children (www.ctvoices.org).