Pre-K is a good use for that surplus

With dozens of states having launched or expanded early childhood education for its neediest three- and four-year-olds, the pre-kindergarten plans proposed by the governor and now by legislative leaders are as welcome as they are overdue.

The governor's budget calls for a modest start that would place 4,000 children in pre-kindergarten classrooms by 2019. Senate President Donald Williams and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey would spend $200 million over 10 years to provide 50,000 three- and four-year-olds in the poorest communities a "high quality" pre-kindergarten program.

There has been considerable research indicating that pre-kindergarten programs lead to later success in school by easing children into a school setting, acquainting them with numbers and expanding their vocabularies. These programs could help reduce the achievement gap between the state's rich and poor, white and minority students and they represent an investment in education, rather than in the products of inadequate education, unemployment, welfare and incarceration.

Pre-kindergarten is not to be confused with day care. Teachers would be certified and programs would have to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children within three years of being funded. There would be a teacher for every 10 pre-kindergarten students.

But there are questions about how the more ambitious plan would be paid for. Half of the $200 million would be bonded for capital costs like classroom renovation and the other $100 million, for operating expenses and salaries, would be obtained by raiding the Tobacco and Health Trust Fund. This fund contributes more than $100 million a year to the state and all but about $12 million of it already goes into the general fund. It comes from the proceeds of a suit against the tobacco industry won by Connecticut and 45 other states to defray health care costs incurred by tobacco users.

The $12 million is supposed to be spent on anti-smoking and other programs promoting good health and Sen. Williams has creatively justified its diversion by characterizing early childhood education as a great investment in the intellectual, educational and even physical health of our children.

So in the spirit of that creativity, we would suggest an alternative means of payment. Take the $200 million or even a healthy part of it, say $150 million, from the anticipated state surplus and spend it on early childhood education for those 50,000 kids.

The idea at present is for a healthy percentage of the surplus, estimated at $500 million or more, to go into the severely depleted rainy day fund for the next financial crisis and that's as it should be.

But the governor and a growing cadre of legislators this election year want to spend $150 million on a $55-per-person refund for taxpayers.

This is so clearly a boondoggle that we have heard little argument from its proponents that it is anything else. So why not take that $150 million or, if our long-term economic prospects will allow, the entire $200 million and spend it instead on the education of 50,000 of our poorest children? This would eliminate more bonding to be repaid with interest by the children we're educating now and save the tobacco fund from further looting.

As we have previously pointed out, the governor's election year gimmick will buy little more than a night on the town for the family at McDonald's or Burger King. A sum even as large as $150 million can be largely wasted when it's given away in $55 increments but it can mean a great deal when it's set aside to help pay for the educational enrichment of our state's littlest and poorest children.

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