December 7, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
Connecticut should spend as much as $100 million over the next two years to expand children's services, including preschool classes, to make the state "a national model for early childhood education," a state committee said Wednesday.
The ambitious recommendation is the first stage of a five-year proposal to more than double the number of low-income children in preschool classes, to train more preschool teachers and aides, and to bolster the quality of preschool programs statewide.
The Early Childhood Research and Policy Council, which is scheduled to give its proposal to Gov. M. Jodi Rell on Friday, provided state education officials with a preview of its recommendations, including a pledge to make preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families across the state.
The goal is to make sure "all kids come to the kindergarten door with the knowledge, skills and behaviors they need to be successful in kindergarten today," Janice Gruendel, the governor's senior adviser on early childhood, told the State Board of Education.
Rell has made preschool a priority and has supported expansions of early childhood programs in the past, but a spokeswoman for her budget office said the latest recommendations must be weighed against other needs before the governor presents her budget proposal in February.
"We try to look at all the individual recommendations independently as part of the overall budget discussion," said Susan Hamilton of the state Office of Policy and Management. "There is a host of competing priorities."
About 77 percent of the state's kindergartners have attended some type of preschool, but the figure is considerably lower in school systems such as Hartford, New Britain and other high poverty cities and towns.
Educators and politicians, including Rell, have said that high quality preschool classes could significantly improve academic achievement in the state's poorest cities, where schools have had high dropout rates and low test scores.
"We need to raise the bar for student performance throughout the system. ... We have to be economically competitive, and that begins with the workforce," said John Rathgeber, president of the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and co-chairman of the Early Childhood Research and Policy Council.
The council's proposal would add about $31 million next year and nearly $72 million in 2008 to a range of programs covering education, social services and health programs now estimated to cost the state about $539 million annually, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Connecticut Early Childhood Education Cabinet.
Earlier this year, Rell created the research and policy council to develop cost estimates and strategies to meet goals established by the early childhood cabinet. The council Wednesday outlined several key recommendations, including:
The addition of nearly $14 million next year and $37 million in 2008 to begin adding preschool slots and creating additional classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. The state currently supports about 8,600 slots at a cost of about $61 million a year, but would add nearly 13,000 slots over the next five years under the council's plan.
Making some of those slots available to eligible families in the form of grants allowing them to enroll children in programs of their choice.
$1.3 million next year and $3.3 million in 2008 to expand programs, create scholarships and provide incentives to attract and train more teachers and other staff to work in preschool classrooms.
The creation of a rating scale to monitor and evaluate child care and preschool programs, including procedures for monitoring credentials of preschool teachers and staff members.
Although the governor, educators and others have expressed support for the expansion of preschool programs, the price tag is expected to stir a lively debate.
"I'm a bit of a skeptic," Donald J. Coolican, a member of the state education board, told members of the early childhood council. "We only have so much money, and I think that money would be better spent on year-round schools in [needy] districts."
The preschool proposal will compete with other budget demands, including an anticipated recommendation from another study commission later this month for a major expansion of state aid to public schools.
"I think there is support for expanding early childhood slots ... but when you mix that with all the other interests in the budget and layer that on top of a constitutional spending cap, it's difficult to make that kind of expansion," said state Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the legislature's Appropriations Committee.
"It really becomes a question of whether the people of the state of Connecticut are ready to pony up for this issue and raise taxes."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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