If one wants to understand Connecticut’s budget woes, one need to look no further than its universal preschool strategy.  And in reviewing the governor’s and legislators’ budget deficit mitigation plans, it was disappointing to see that they opted to further erode the state’s early care system and industry, rather than make smarter choices that preserve both.

The state pays a Head Start provider $0 and a school readiness provider $8,924 to educate a preschool child year round in a NAEYC accredited setting with bachelor degreed teachers.

The state pays a Care-4-kids provider $9,482 for year round care in a public or private NAEYC accredited setting with some bachelor degreed teachers.

The state pays the public schools an average of $10,285+, the magnet schools $13,054+ and a charter school $11,000 for 180 days at no cost to parents regardless of their ability to pay. A school district like New Haven spends $17,000 per child.

Yet when faced with the choice of where to find savings and efficiencies, the governor proposes eliminating a million dollars in school readiness funds which represents a much needed and much fought for increase to childcare businesses.

The Democrats propose a $2 million cut to childcare services which includes the Care-4-Kids program, a subsidy that helps Connecticut’s neediest parents to pay for childcare. All while leaving untouched millions of dollars to the public schools.

New Haven Board of Education serves 1,953 preschool children.  Hartford serves 2,135, 64 percent of whom are families from surrounding suburbs.  At an average rate of $10,285, the governor’s universal preschool strategy has saddled Connecticut with a new $42 million obligation with what is paid to Hartford and New Haven alone. That represents 13 percent of the projected deficit for 2016. All this while simultaneously adopting policies and practices that degrade and destroy child care businesses that actual generate revenue for the state and supplant Head Start funding which shifts the cost from the federal government to the state.

Section 10-264p of the Connecticut General Statutes currently provides a mechanism for magnet schools to charge a sliding scale fee which is currently calculated at $4,053 per year or $101 per week for families earning more than $65,000.  Assuming that only 30 percent of families currently served by New Haven and Hartford meet this criteria, the state can immediately generate close to $5 million by enforcing this statute.  Currently neither systems are utilizing this mechanism for achieving savings and no lawmaker is insisting that they do.

Additionally, lawmakers can require the public schools to document at the time of enrollment that a preschool child could not be served first in one of the other lower cost alternatives in their districts that has the same standard of quality, instead of what is currently happening, i.e. pulling children out of Head start and school readiness programs, destabilizing surrounding childcare businesses and passing on the bill to the state at twice the cost.

Jeff Imelt,  CEO of General Electric, said Connecticut businesses “need an ecosystem that’s forward-looking, that’s future-looking; that’s willing to fight hard to be competitive and enduring for the future.”  The governor and lawmakers can signal that they are ready to create that ecosystem by simply rethinking their universal preschool strategy which in its current form and with proposed cuts threaten more than Connecticut’s early care businesses.

Georgia Goldburn is executive director of the Hope Child Development Center in New Haven.

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