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Democratic Lawmakers Unveil Their Own Preschool Initiative

by Christine Stuart | Apr 9, 2014 2:11pm
(7) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education

Christine Stuart photo

Sen. Donald Williams and Sen. Beth Bye

(Updated 3:49 p.m.) Sen. President Donald Williams and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey announced plans Wednesday to use $10 million from Tobacco Settlement funds and $10 million in bonding every year for the next 10 years to implement a universal preschool program.

“This is a winner across the board,” Williams said at a Capitol press conference. “An extraordinary step forward to universal pre-K.”

The total cost of the program would be $200 million over 10 years. Half of the money would come from borrowing and half would come from the Tobacco Settlement fund. The money from borrowing would be used to expand classroom capacity and resources, while the Tobacco Settlement funds would act as operating funds to pay the salaries of the teachers.

The plan is to use the money to fund about 50,000 slots for public school children ages three and four years old. Currently, there are 16,420 children aged three and four attending preschool programs in Connecticut public schools. There are another 10,000 children receiving services through the School Readiness program, and 11,400 are receiving early childhood services outside the public school system.

In total, there are about 84,000 children in that age group in Connecticut, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Connecticut, only 8 percent of 3-year-olds and 13 percent of the 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool programs.

Funding for these preschool spots also dropped from $9,356 in 2011 to $8,388 in 2012.

In February, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed funding 4,000 new preschool slots by 2019. The slots would go to the neediest children, in some of the poorest school districts in the state. It provides funding of $11.5 million for slots and $2.3 million in startup costs for districts that need to renovate classroom space to accommodate preschoolers.

The money Williams proposed Wednesday would go to public schools. The classroom size would be limited to 16 students and all teachers would need to be certified, Williams said. The retiring senate president said they’ve been working with the Malloy administration on the plan and it would be in addition to the new slots Malloy created through his budget proposal.

At an unrelated event Wednesday, Malloy said he is willing to work with everyone on universal pre-kindergarten, but he said he did not “know anything about their plan.”

“I’m the guy who brought that phrase to the Connecticut state Capitol and I want to work with everyone on it, but it would be impossible for me to comment on details of that program,” he said.

The governor explained the provisions of his own plan to move toward universal pre-k, including funding “planning grants.”

“A lot of this is about capacity,” he said. “For communities that still don’t have full-time kindergarten, a lot of that issue is about capacity. We need to do a lot of work in the field, in the towns I should say, about capacity and understand how quickly we can gear up for this.”

In 2011, the state was facing a “real crisis” in terms of its budget, Sharkey said. As a result, the state had to address the initial and immediate need of closing a budget gap, “but if you have vision you also begin planting seeds for future growth,” he said.

Sharkey, who gave Williams full credit for the proposal, said they’re starting to see those “seeds take root” and now is time to expand on early childhood education.

The $10 million in Tobacco Settlement funds for the first year already have been dedicated for another purpose. Williams admitted Wednesday that they’re still looking for a source of operating funds for the first year of the program.

“But for the other nine years we’re finding the dollars we’re going to need without displacing other important services,” Williams said.

The Appropriations Committee budget swept about $12.5 million from the Tobacco Settlement fund, which is supposed to be applied to smoking cessation programs to help residents quit.

There’s about $106 million from the Tobacco Settlement fund in the state budget. In 1998, 48 states sued the major tobacco companies, arguing the companies had always known smoking was a health hazard, and the cost of caring for victims of smoking was draining state health care systems.

The states won, but the use of the money has been contentious. A national organization found that Connecticut’s spending of the money on tobacco cessation programs has dropped over the past year. It went from 23rd in the nation to 34th in the nation.

Asked about the use of the tobacco funds on early childhood education, Williams said, “I don’t think there’s any greater investment in the health of our children, whether you’re talking about their intellectual and educational health or in fact their physical health, than early childhood education.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said it’s like the Democrats never learn from their mistakes. He said adding more borrowing and raising the Tobacco Settlement funds makes no sense no matter how popular the idea.

“We just don’t stop. It gets worse and worse,” Cafero said. “The worst part about it is the very kids we’re trying to give spots to are going to have to pay for this.”

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(7) Comments

posted by: art vandelay | April 9, 2014  3:10pm

art vandelay

Why not direct all lottery proceeds from the general fund into education where it was originally intended to go. The tobacco settlement fund should not be raided.  Again the same thing with the transportation fund.  This is exactly why Connecticut is in the financial mess it’s in.
In the end the state will redirect these funds back into the general fund leaving the towns high and dry.  It’s why property taxes are so high.

posted by: DCSCT1 | April 9, 2014  4:35pm

Tobacco money?  Diverting funds from one account to another, and bonding(borrowing) seems to be only way they know how to budget.  Williams comment about using the tobacco money to pay for it is priceless.

posted by: Just another CT resident | April 9, 2014  4:46pm

Pre-K is a fine idea but borrowing to fund the program is not. How about taking the $155 million that Gov Malloy wants to refund to taxpayers and set all of that aside to fund the Pre-K program for the next 10 years. If the $155 million is invested and gets 5% return then that will cover the annual $20 million cost of the program for 10 years. Borrowing to pay for current costs is not a fiscally sound way to fund any on going operating program.

posted by: justsayin | April 9, 2014  8:54pm

So its not really universal because it is targeted at certain school districts, failing ones at that. If the money did stop smoking the funds would dry up and they could not fund anything. So redistribution helps the cycle continue. For the children, of course.

posted by: art vandelay | April 9, 2014  9:55pm

art vandelay

@Just Another CT Resident,
It would be political suicide for Malloy to backtrack on his $55.00 promise. Santa Claus has to have something in his sleigh to pass out just before the election.

posted by: GBear423 | April 10, 2014  7:17am

GBear423

Pre-K: necessity?
Grass ban: necessity?
e-cigarettes: necessity?
gun control: necessity?

nope, just government intrusion.

How many non essential issues can this Party go to the press with before they have nothing left to deal with besides the massive debt? They keep runnin the tab and not paying off the debt.

The Press I thought had a duty to hold these “servants” accountable. Would be swell to see some tough questions and tougher follow ups by the media in CT.

posted by: dano860 | April 10, 2014  7:41am

More “VOTE” pandering.
Art hit the nail square on the head, use the funds for what they are intended for! Duh!