Gov. Dannel Malloy's plan to provide universal prekindergarten education for poor children is ambitious. He wants to start by making 1,000 more preschool spaces available, aiming to enroll 4,000 more children by 2019.
Yet Mr. Malloy would be better off spending most of the money on improving quality, rather than expanding quantity. Otherwise, the proposal risks wasting taxpayers' money.
College Degrees Matter
For decades, research has shown that quality prekindergarten programs give taxpayers a huge, positive return on investment. The landmark Perry Preschool Project, which provided poor minority children in Ypsilanti, Mich., with a quality preschool experience in the 1960s was found in follow-up studies decades later to have saved taxpayers about $13 for every $1 invested — more than a quarter-million dollars per student. Participants were more likely to avoid being held back in school, to finish high school and even to earn more money as adults than those who did not have the same early childhood education.
But we can't get these results with baby-sitting. Such results are far more likely when impoverished children attend high-quality early childhood programs with trained teachers who provide stimulating educational environments to spark curiosity and encourage development of a rich vocabulary.
Despite the fact that Connecticut spends millions of dollars on pre-K and spends more per student than most states, our state's standards for taxpayer-funded programs are all over the map. There's no consistent high standard here. This is both inexplicable and unacceptable, particularly in a state where poor minority children, on average, lag far behind white children in education. According to the National Association of Early Education Research, which measures pre-K standards in all the states, Connecticut requires only six of 10 minimum benchmarks.
In Connecticut, preschool teachers are not required to have a bachelor's degree or even an associate's degree. (In the Perry Preschool Project, all the teachers had bachelor's degrees and some had master's degrees.) The state is trying to address this. By 2020, all prekindergarten teachers in School Readiness programs will be required to have bachelors' degrees, according to Myra Jones-Taylor, executive director of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood. Yet the School Readiness program covers only a quarter of the children enrolled in state-funded early childhood programs — about 10,000.
Another 20,000 children get preschool funded through the state's "Care 4 Kids" program, designed to help impoverished families with child-care expenses for children up to age 12. Ms. Jones-Taylor says that parents are strongly encouraged to enroll their children in quality pre-K programs, but they are not required to do so. Yet because child-care rates allowed for the Care 4 Kids program have remained frozen for 12 years — from 2002 until this year — any parent would be hard-pressed to pay for a high-quality program at the sums Connecticut doles out.
Child Poverty Rising
To his credit, Mr. Malloy is increasing money for this program, and rates will go up 3 percent under his proposal. But the state has a long way to go to get quality pre-K programs for every child that needs them, and there's urgency in getting there. In the past five years, the percentage of children considered poor in our state has gone from 11 percent to 17 percent, according to Connecticut Voices for Children.
The governor's priorities are right; Connecticut needs universal preschool for all children in poverty. If the state is smart about how it spends money on this issue, children will benefit, Connecticut will improve its educational results for poor and minority children, and taxpayers will save money.Copyright © 2015, CT Now