It was an ambitious plan: the state would provide the funding necessary to guarantee every child access to a high-quality preschool.
“Let’s commit Connecticut to achieving universal pre-kindergarten,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy told legislators during his State of the State speech last year.
Legislators agreed, and celebrated when the Democratic governor signed into law a legislative plan to spend $15 million more this fiscal year and $20 million more each year afterward until 2024 to drastically expand preschool enrollment in public schools. The legislature also funded the first year of a separate Malloy plan to add 1,020 preschool seats this year. The governor hoped the program would eventually be extended to add another 3,000 seats over the next four years.
And then reality hit.
Just 22 of 123 eligible school districts applied for the funding.
“We considered it for about 30 seconds,” said Merrill Gay, a member of New Britain’s school board and the executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, which represents early care providers across the state. “It wasn’t that good of a deal.”
The state on Monday awarded districts $1.6 million of the $15 million available — and no more is expected to be given out before the fiscal year ends in seven weeks.
“That was all that applied and we accepted,” said Diana Ligardi, spokeswoman for the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood. “We’ll see what next year brings.” The state has committed to spending $2.1 million so far for the next school year, enough to pay to open 28 new classrooms.
The state still has a long way to go before it reaches universal preschool for the state’s 3- and 4-year olds. State officials reported earlier this year that 10,109 children from low-income families — nearly one-third of poor students — cannot afford to enroll in a high-quality preschool program. To provide universal access to preschool, districts would have to add 814 more preschool classrooms.
The state has boosted funding in recent years to expand enrollment in high-quality preschool programs, known as School Readiness. Since 2010, enrollment has increased by 1,800 children.
But Connecticut ranks 29th nationwide among the states for access by 4-year-olds to a high-quality preschool, reports the National Institute for Early Education Research.
The legislature’s multi-year plan plan — dubbed Smart Start — was meant to solve this access issue.
“If we want Connecticut students and our state to have a brighter tomorrow, we must make smart decisions in early childhood today,” Malloy said in a press release announcing the $1.6 million award for this fiscal year.
The $2.1 million the state has committed for next year will pay to expand enrollment by 416 seats — well under the 2,000 seats Smart Start initially envisioned.
While the funding for the first year of the governor’s expansion was included in the adopted state budget, the expansion rolled out slower than planned and $1 million is expected to be saved this year by not filling all those seats.
Grappling with a $1.3 billion deficit in the next fiscal year’s budget, the governor did not propose the funding necessary to implement the second year of that expansion.
“This year, given the dire budget situation, there is not a proposal to expand pre-K by 1,000 slots,” Myra Jones-Taylor, his commissioner for early childhood, told state legislators during a budget hearing earlier this year.
Meanwhile, preschool programs in the state’s lowest-performing districts report they have the space to accommodate more preschool classes but not the money to operate them.
In Hartford, for example, the district is reimbursed by the state for 1,712 preschool students — 110 fewer students than they have space to enroll. In Waterbury, the district could add 57 students. Statewide, the state’s lowest-performing districts have the space for 249 more students.
Asked Monday about the future of Smart Start, Malloy deferred questions to a later time.
“What we do in the future we’ll speak to in the future,” Malloy told reporters Monday after the State Bond Commission meeting approved $1.6 million so districts can construct the classrooms to be ready for additional students.
The lack of districts applying for the funding come down to the size of the state grant, some district leaders say.
The state provides $5,000 for each new student in the program — or $75,000 per new preschool classroom — much less than district leaders say it costs to open new preschool classrooms.
That leaves districts having to find the rest of the money locally, a challenge as districts grapple with deficits of their own.
“Towns are saying we’re not able to do this unless you are paying for it,” said Gay of New Britain. “When we did the math, we knew we couldn’t afford this.”
In New Britain, it costs the urban district $120,000 for each classroom it opens, well above the $75,000 the state provides.
“I don’t see districts rushing to apply any time soon,” said Gay.
Of the 22 districts that applied for funding, 14 will receive funding next year so that 28 new classrooms open. Those districts include Ansonia (1 classroom), Bridgeport (4), Clinton (1), Coventry (2), East Hartford (2), East Haven (2), Enfield (2), Killingly (1), Norwich (1), Plainfield (1), Stamford (1), Wallingford (2), West Hartford (4) and Windsor (4).
Sen. Beth Bye, who championed Smart Start last year, said she believes the program will take off soon.
“School districts don’t move fast. They take time to adopt these things. It’s very early and districts are conservative,” said Bye, D-West Hartford, and co-chair of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee. “Word of mouth among the [participating] superintendents is going to be powerful.”
The districts that applied, but were not awarded funds were Avon, Columbia, Derby, New Haven, Vernon and Winchester. In total, those districts applied for funding to open 34 new preschool classrooms.
A spokeswoman for the state agency said reasons varied why those district’s applications were not accepted. New Haven, for instance, “did not provide sufficient data demonstrating an unmet need,” Lejardi said. Vernon’s application did not demonstrate the ability to provide summer programming, did not have a plan to recruit students who speak limited English or need special education, and did not have all its classrooms located in public schools, which was a requirement.
The state was awarded additional federal funds to help the state expand preschool enrollment. That funding — which is separate from Smart Start — is expected to result in 428 more children attending high-quality preschools next school year.