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New London — State Sen. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, watched Friday morning as a pre-kindergarten student at C.B. Jennings Elementary School practiced addition on a computer.
Stillman smiled, impressed as the student breezed through a series of equations, answering each one correctly.
"Look at the math skills they're developing at 4 years old," she said. "This is why pre-K is so important."
Friday evening, the state Senate passed by a 33-2 vote a bill that combines the Democrats' proposal to create up to 50,000 additional pre-K seats over 10 years, the governor's proposal for an additional 4,000 seats over four years and a proposal to give the newly created Office of Early Childhood the authority to administer early childhood programs. The bill now goes to the House of Representatives for a vote.
"I applaud the senators who voted for this bill today," Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said in a press release on Friday. "And I want to thank Senators (Donald) Williams and (Martin) Looney for their commitment to ensuring that Connecticut's children arrive at kindergarten ready to learn and succeed."
Stillman visited Jennings Friday morning to highlight Connecticut Smart Start, which was unveiled earlier this month by House and Senate Democrats to move the state closer to universal pre-K.
Under the Connecticut Smart Start grant program, state spending per student would be capped at $5,000 and state spending per school district would be capped at $300,000, according to the bill.
"Early childhood education makes an impactful difference in the lives of children across our state, and it is a difference we can see firsthand in New London," Stillman, co-chairwoman of the legislature's Education Committee, said. "Pre-K is one of our most effective tools for combating the achievement gap and I'm proud to advocate for an initiative ... that will exponentially increase enrollment in these programs."
The plan would provide $20 million each school year - half in bonding for capital expenses related to classroom renovations and half from the Tobacco Settlement Fund for operating expenses - for the next 10 years to fund about 50,000 new seats in public schools for early childhood education.
Reps. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, and Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, have also supported the initiative. Stillman met Friday with Superintendent Nicholas A. Fischer, Chief Academic Officer Katherine Ericson, magnet high school Principal Louis E. Allen and Jennings Principal Laurelle Texidor.
Stillman said that by requiring certification for all teachers, capping the student-to-teacher ratio at 10-to-1, and mandating that all programs obtain accreditation from the National Association for the Education of Young Children within three years of receiving funding, the Smart Start initiative would ensure the programs are high-quality.
In his most recent budget plan, Malloy proposed $11.5 million in funding for more than 1,000 pre-K spots in the next fiscal year, with priority for children from low-income families. By the end of 2019, Malloy has said, he wants the state to have universal access to pre-K.
At the federal level, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., has co-sponsored a bill to expand and improve early childhood education programs for children from birth to age 5. On Thursday, Murphy toured a federally funded Head Start facility in New London with City Councilor Erica Richardson and touted the benefits of pre-K learning.
Supporters say pre-K programs provide a strong foundation for learning and help prepare children for more success in elementary school.
"There is a dramatic difference in the performance of our students who attended our dual language pre-kindergarten when compared to those students who did not have this experience," Texidor said.
Jennings and Winthrop Elementary Magnet School each have one classroom of pre-K with morning and afternoon sessions, serving a total of 28 students at each school.
Staff Writer Johanna Somers contributed to this report.