Connecticut Looks to Overhaul Early Education

Published January 19, 2012

Although Connecticut funnels $224.6 million toward early childcare and preschool each year, a new study concludes the system is underfunded, disorganized, and poorly monitored.

Connecticut Voices for Children has published an annual report providing data on the state’s pre-K system for years. This year’s data showed disorganized funding streams and confusing reporting and requirements.

“Connecticut is a very program-rich but system-poor state,” said Sarah Esty, report author and CVC policy fellow. “There are a number of different programs that all have different provider requirements, there are multiple funding streams, and the guidelines and application varies so it’s often quite confusing for parents to navigate and requires a lot of time for providers.”

Over the past decade, state dollars for pre-K more than doubled nationally to $5.1 billion. At the same time, overall enrollment rose by 300,000 children, to 1 million, according to the Pew Center on the States. In 2009, states started cutting pre-K funding due to budget pressures. Nine states won a collective $500 million in Race to the Top federal grants in December 2011 for early childhood programs.

Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy (D) has called early childhood education a key priority for 2012, a “Year for Education Reform.”

‘Mishmash’ of Programs
Early childhood schooling drives academic success, and Connecticut’s poor system is hurting student achievement, said Patrick Riccards, CEO of ConnCAN, a public school advocacy group.

“Prior to 2011, early childhood education simply wasn’t a significant concern of the state,” Riccards said. “It was, and continues to be, a relative mishmash of programs with very little accountability. Many of the young learners who would benefit the most from early care and education are not getting access to it.”

Public Act 11-181 established a two-year planning process for improving Connecticut’s early education under an Early Childhood Education Cabinet after passing the legislature in early 2011. Esty said the state is interviewing candidates for program director.

Funding Quandaries
Because of budget concerns, state-funded pre-K has not been on the table for the past five years, said John Cattelan, director of the Connecticut Federation of Catholic School Parents.

“[Public Act 11-181 gives the new program director] until 2013 to come up with a set of recommendations to streamline funding,” Esty said. “Our recommendation is that there is a lot of things this person will have to address; fully funded slots, workforce development, etc.”

The CVC report listed eight principles that should benchmark the new legislation, including uniform reporting requirements, unified funding, and fully funded slots for participants.

“There often is this instinct when you see a program like this, that is inefficient and not meeting people’s needs, to dump more money into it,” said Carrie Lukas, managing director of the Independent Women’s Forum. “The problem is not getting children into childcare but to give families the means to keep a parent at home, or encourage a system where money follows the child. Put power in the hands of parents to choose programs that make sense for them rather than a one-size fits all government program.”

Targeting Resources
To make the most of funds, government should tightly target them rather than creating large programs, said Chester E. Finn Jr., president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“Universal programs provide an unnecessary windfall for a lot of families that are otherwise doing this on their own just fine, or pretty well, and not enough for kids who really need it,” Finn said.

Government childcare and preschool subsidies displace individual preferences and arrangements such as scrimping to keep a parent at home with the kids, sending them to grandma’s, or dividing childcare with friends, Lukas said.

“The fallacy is that early childhood programs lead to better education outcomes, but unfortunately there’s very little evidence that holds true,” she said. “And a lot of families make sacrifices to keep kids at home. The value a stay-at-home mom is providing is seen as less when you can put a kid in a building nine-to-five. If other people get subsidized daycare, government is picking one lifestyle choice over another.”


Image by Brendon Connelly.