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Hartford — Democratic leadership announced a proposal Wednesday to spend $200 million over 10 years on enhancing pre-kindergarten programs at public schools throughout the state.
Half of the funds would come from bonding and half from the state’s Tobacco and Health Trust Fund, which was created after a 1998 settlement with the tobacco industry over health risks associated with smoking.
The initiative, called Connecticut Smart Start, would give 50,000 children access to high-quality early education with the goal of closing the so-called achievement gap that leaves many children at an educational disadvantage.
“We know that the earlier we can get children, the better,” said Karen List, superintendent of West Hartford Public Schools. “We know that the achievement gap starts at nine months old.”
Public school professionals spoke of children who showed up on the first day of kindergarten full of joy and ready to learn only to feel humiliated because they are missing basic knowledge, such as how a book opens right to left.
This investment would help prepare more children for grade school, they said.
Towns and cities would have to apply for the funding to operate programs for five years, with the chance for renewal for an additional five years if benchmarks are met.
Municipalities would have to demonstrate an unmet need for preschool and show that they would give priority to students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Teachers would have to be certified and the preschool programs would have to obtain the National Association for the Education of Young Children accreditation within three years of receiving funding. The classroom size must also not exceed 16 children.
The funds could be used for capital costs such as classroom renovation, operating expenses such as hiring teachers and purchasing supplies and materials.
The program would build on the governor’s proposed initiative to create 4,000 pre-K slots for children over five years at a cost of $51.1 million.
“This is an opportunity not just to improve children’s education as they go through life but to lift them out of the achievement gap to give them a far better start so down the road we are lifting many of them out of poverty as well,” said state Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford.
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said the proposal was the opportunity that Connecticut’s children needed.
“Children who experience high-quality pre-K arrive at school ready to learn, are less likely to need remedial or special education services and have higher rates of high school graduation. Connecticut Smart Start will help level the playing field for tens of thousands of children — it’s the best educational investment we can make.”
State Rep. Andy Fleischmann, who is the co-chairman with Stillman on the Education Committee, thanked Stillman and Williams for leaving a legacy of supporting children’s education. Both are not seeking re-election.
“To put your imprint on this and to say this is critically important for Connecticut is so right,” Fleischmann said.