Op-ed: Smart Start misses the mark
Connecticut’s Democratic legislators unveiled their plan to provide access to universal pre-k through a grant initiative called Smart Start. While Smart Start’s goals are laudable, it misses the opportunity to develop a model that is both fiscally prudent and sustainable, one that capitalizes on previous investments made by the state, and preserves choices for families without cannibalizing the child care industry.
But most regrettably, it provides no guarantees of meeting the intended target of the creation of 50,000 preschool slots and does not chart a true course to universal access.
Infoline’s fall 2013 survey of child care capacity reveals that there are 8,053 preschool vacancies in private and community-based settings, including Head Start and school readiness programs. Proponents of Smart Start recognize that these slots, many of which are free, have historically been in cities like Hartford, New Haven and Bridgeport, where high pockets of poverty exist, and they exclude parents with similar needs in towns like West Hartford or Stamford.
The Smart Start initiative attempts to remedy this problems with bonded funds granted to these municipalities and districts to create 5,000 additional slots in the public schools each year at a cost of $10 million. Proponents argue that the plan would only cost the state $10 million vs. the governor’s proposed $51 million for 4,000 new slots.
What they fail to mention is that the governor’s proposed $51 million is inadequate, and it is through the efficiencies of private and community-based programs that make the proposal feasible. Smart Start proposes to limit the state’s exposure to $10 million (plus the cost of borrowing) and pass the additional $40+ million off to municipalities, which, if they choose to pursue these funds, would have to match them through increased property taxes and parent fees. Given many residents’ tax weariness, many municipalities may opt out, and the goal of 5,000 new slots each year may not materialize.
In addition, Smart Start supplants preschool slots in tax generating, job creating (albeit highly regulated), private and community-based child care centers in favor of tax-dependent preschool slots in the public schools that are subjected to the ebbs and flows of state and municipal funding. Given that preschool education is not a guaranteed right for every child, it is conceivable that these classrooms will be the first to go when local governments have to make hard choices in their education budgets. And as more parents flee to these free tax-dependent programs, many child care providers will find it impossible to compete.
In 2013 alone, 62 percent of center-based providers who shuttered their programs cited “business not profitable” as the reason. As more and more centers close their doors, not only will millions of dollars of tax revenue be lost to state and local governments, but parents will see a sharp increase in child care costs as well as longer waiting lists as supply shrinks. Additionally, many in the industry, including proponents of Smart Start, know that preschool programs in private and community-based centers subsidize and offset the cost of infant and toddler care. The average cost of infant care is estimated to be $$13,000 per year. Without a preschool component in the private or community-based programs, those costs will see sharp increases.
The “smart start” to implementing universal pre-k would be to capitalize on the existing preschool slots, many of which are already in NAEYC-accredited facilities that meet licensing requirement with teachers with bachelor’s degrees. This can be achieved by simply removing the neighborhood requirement in the school readiness statutes. In addition, legislators can expand access to School Readiness and Care 4 Kids funding by increasing the subsidy to parents provided through these programs and by raising the income requirement so that more families qualify, rather than creating a new funding stream that places children in a one-size-fits-all model. Legislators could immediately provide guaranteed preschool access to 8,000 new children, whether they live in or outside of high-priority districts, without mortgaging Connecticut’s future.
Strengthening the state’s mixed delivery system of preschool education through existing funding mechanism not only preserves choices and convenience for families, it also preserves a stable child care industry that keeps Connecticut open for business, while putting Connecticut on a true path to universal pre-k. It is not only a “smart start” for legislators but a more fiscally responsible one as well.
Georgia Goldburn is the executive director of Hope Child Development Center in New Haven.
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