State to continue funding pre-K expansion despite lack of budget

The state notified 24 school districts Friday that it will pay for preschool programs the state has historically funded.

West Hartford Public Schools

A preschool classroom at Whiting Lane Elementary School in West Hartford

With no state budget in place for the current fiscal year – and the school year quickly approaching – uncertainty had surrounded whether the state would provide the money it promised district leaders when they expanded or opened new preschool classrooms over the last two school years.

The state will provide $3.3 million to continue funding 45 classrooms that will enroll 665 youngsters, mostly from low-income families.

Bridgeport, Wallingford, West Hartford and Windsor are impacted the most since each will have four preschool classrooms funded under the grant. West Hartford and Windsor each are opening one additional preschool classroom this year. (See a summary of the programs in all the towns here.)

“It’s very good news for children and families,” said Maggie Adair, a spokeswoman for the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood.

These seats are part of the state’s “Smart Start” program, an ambitious long-term initiative to move the state closer to offering universal access to high-quality preschool by drastically expanding the number of preschool classes in public schools.

But that initiative has largely fallen by the wayside as the state budget has struggled with deficits. The plan called for spending $20 million more each year.

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 in 2015 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.

Still, Connecticut ranked 23rd nationwide in 2016 for access by 4-year-olds to a high-quality preschool, according to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research. In 2010, the state ranked 29th.

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