Malloy pushes universal pre-K

In his State of the State address last week, Gov. Dannel Malloy called for funding to implement a universal pre-kindergarten program in Connecticut.

If the proposed $13.8 million plan to increase access to pre-K education by 40 percent in the next five years is passed, around 4,000 additional kids will have spots in state-funded programs.

The plan aims to give these spots to low-income students, using preexisting eligibility requirements for the state’s School Readiness Program, according to a Friday statement from the governor’s office.

“We know that early education is one of the best ways to level the playing field for students,” Malloy said in his address. “If you believe as I do that education is the civil rights issue of our time, then I ask you to join me today in taking the first steps toward making sure every child has access to a pre-K experience.”

Malloy’s proposal is not the first of its kind. President Obama’s State of the Union endorsed universal pre-K, a proposal that has gained prominence after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made it the centerpiece of his campaign. When he was Mayor of Stamford, Malloy himself made pre-K programs mandatory.

The plan will increase School Readiness slots by 1,020 for the 2015 fiscal year. Parents who currently have children enrolled in the School Readiness Program pay for these spots on a sliding scale based on income, with tuition fees in New Haven ranging from $0 to $175 a week, according to a 2012 guide to parents offered by the NHPS Early Childhood Program. Spots are available in both public and private schools.

“Children who have access to high quality care early on have lower rates of special education enrollment later, and they’re prepared to enter classrooms in kindergarten,” said Dr. Myra Jones-Taylor GRD ’11, executive director of the state’s Office of Early Childhood. “Investing in children is simply good policy.”

There are currently 10,834 School Readiness slots offered to three and four-year-old children in 67 towns marked “priority” and “competitive.” An additional 6,124 kids receive pre-K training through the Head Start Program, and 11,442 kids who are not in either program attend preschool in public schools. The state also funds child daycare centers, according to the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood.

In New Haven — a “priority” town — 27.6 percent of kindergartners in the 2012-13 school year did not have any pre-K experience, according to a report by the state Department of Education.

“Regardless of where children receive their care from birth to when they’re five, it should be of the highest quality,” Jones-Taylor said, adding that communication between pre-K and kindergarten teachers is crucial to ensuring high quality care.

Last week, Malloy held an event in Hamden at Helen Street School, which has a 27-slot pre-K program that was established six years ago and currently has 10 School Readiness slots.

Dr. Michael Lorenzo, Helen Street School’s principal, said he thinks all kids should go through pre-K training.

“We should build a foundation as early as possible, so when kids get into kindergarten, we’re building on a sound, solid foundation, and we don’t have to go back to basic skills,” he said. “We can get out of the gate running.”

Lorenzo said kindergarten and pre-K teachers at Helen Street School collaborate on their curricula. Kindergarten teachers say teaching kids with pre-K training is easier, since they know what skills kids who come into their class already have.

Lorenzo, like Malloy, emphasized the success of the School Readiness slots in helping low-income students catch up to higher income peers.

When a child from a low-income family enters first grade, that child’s vocabulary has on average 15,000 fewer words than one of a middle-class child, according to a study by Jumpstart, a national early education organization.

Dr. Elizabeth Carroll, director of Yale’s Education Studies Department, said pre-K not only provides students with much-needed vocabulary but also social skills and help with any developmental disabilities.

“Research is pretty clear about the benefits of early childhood education,” Carroll said. “It’s important from a developmental standpoint that children are ready to have the stamina to attend school and be successful. If kids get behind early on in elementary school, it’s hard for them to get caught up.”

In addition to the School Readiness spots, the Governor’s proposal would increase per-student funding by 3 percent for home-base providers through Care 4 Kids, a subsidy that gave childcare vouchers to 6,993 pre-school aged kids in Connecticut in December 2013, according to that month’s Care 4 Kids Expenditure Report. There are 2,428 licensed home-base care providers in the state, who care for newborns to five-year-olds, according to the Office of Early Childhood.

In New Haven, around 900 preschool-age children receive home-based care, according to Steven Morales, a research and evaluation fellow for All Our Kin, a Connecticut-based nonprofit that trains and supports community child care providers.

Cyd Oppenheimer LAW ’04, a co-chair of the New Haven Early Childhood Council, said she expects some of the 4,000 proposed slots to go to New Haven students.

New Haven has expanded their pre-K programs — in 1995, just 63.2 percent of children in New Haven had a pre-K experience prior to kindergarten, compared to the 72.4 percent now, according to NHPS Early Childhood Program’s website.

But an estimated 44 percent of three and four-year-olds in New Haven are eligible for the free and reduced price lunch program, Oppenheimer said. And 3.5 percent of kindergarteners in the city had to repeat kindergarten in 2012, according to the report by the Department of Education.

Though Oppenheimer said she supports the governor, she is concerned that the proposed funds may not address the quality of the childcare provided.

“Every slot needs to be high quality,” she said. “It should be staffed with teachers that have credentials in early childhood, and the curriculum needs to be developmentally appropriate.”

The state has already made steps toward higher quality programs, with a state statute passed a few years ago calling for all head teachers to have a bachelor’s degree by 2020, Oppenheimer said.

Still, Oppenheimer said the state needs a standard of quality that links federally-set Head Start standards with state-set School Readiness standards.

Another issue not addressed in the proposal is teacher salaries. A preschool teacher’s average salary is $29,500 a year; a starting elementary school teacher makes $42,000 a year, according to Oppenheimer.

This year, New Haven Public Schools put additional questions on its kindergarten registration form, asking parents whose children did not attend pre-K to list why their child did not attend a pre-K program.

“I feel very strongly that we need to get better data first to figure out where the need is,” Oppenheimer said. “I absolutely support the governor, but we need to be clear that this needs to happen.”

Malloy is calling on the Office of Early Childhood to submit a plan for universal pre-K access by Jan. 1, 2015.

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