In Connecticut, universal access to high quality preschool falls short. A third of Connecticut's poorest children enter kindergarten without preschool.
The state ranks 29th in preschool access for 4-year-olds. On the quality side, Connecticut scored only 60 percent on the Early Childhood Report Card for quality standards, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
We are not alone in failing to deliver to our children.
For decades, politicians, business leaders, boards of education and even the Federal Reserve have endorsed the value of early education for children, families and our nation. The idea that early investments save money and enhance outcomes for children is part of our nation's educational narrative. President Barack Obama recently called for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds, putting the return on investment at a stunning 18 percent.
A half a century of talk about the benefits of having children arrive ready for school is in the history books. Talk is cheap. Progress is measurable, and to date, unremarkable, in Connecticut and at the federal level.
In 2012, Head Start reached less than 30 percent of the poorest 3- and 4-year-olds and barely half had access to any preschool, according to The Brookings Institution. Access only makes an impact when it is to high quality programs — and they are scarce. The last national study on quality found the majority of child care was mediocre to poor, and recent reviews of Head Start and center-based programs have questioned their lasting impact. It's no wonder with ever shrinking appropriations.
Since 1962, the children's share of the federal budget has fallen by 23 percent, according to the Urban Institute. Further, a 2011 analysis of federal funding for early childhood showed that, over the last decade, funding has "slipped as enrollments increased — undercutting efforts to ensure program quality," according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. That's no way to support improved outcomes for our youngest learners.
On the funding side, Connecticut's appropriations for early care have been stagnant, and are currently 10 percent below 2002 funding levels, according to Connecticut Voices for Children.
And although most states require teachers in state funded programs to have a bachelor's degree, Connecticut does not, despite two decades of research that teacher qualifications affect quality and lead to better child outcomes.
Connecticut has a proposal to reshape its early childhood system with a new early childhood office. To avoid being just more talk, this office must be focused on reforming the current system so Connecticut makes the kinds of investments that increase access and positively change the educational trajectories of children.
New Jersey's Abbott public preschools offer a promising model. Like, Connecticut's School Readiness program, New Jersey's Abbott preschools were the outcome of a school equity lawsuit. In New Jersey, however, the court prescribed that the publicly funded preschools have certified teachers, small classes and quality facilities. This court ordered format, now heavily studied, has led to very promising, and enduring child outcomes.
Can't Connecticut design such a preschool initiative for its children without a court order?
Our elementary school enrollments are declining. Why not consider a plan that brings 4-year-olds into these emptying classrooms? The early childhood office can build bridges across the myriad of local, state and federal funding streams. School Readiness funding could be blended with the president's proposed federal initiative, local funding and Title I dollars to accomplish universal access.
Currently school districts spend tens of millions from Title I for remediation in the early grades, but preschool is an eligible expense. The need for remediation could be ameliorated with access to preschool. That's the whole idea; invest early and save costly interventions later.
I don't know many investors who would turn down an 18 percent return on investment. But as a nation, and a state, we have been turning it down for generations. And the tragedy is, that behind these missed investments, are missed opportunities for children and their families. Let's take advantage of the new office of early childhood and design the best preschool system in our nation.
Beth Bye of West Hartford is Democratic assistant majority leader in the state Senate and co-chair of the General Assembly's Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee.