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Conn. finally lands education grant

After four unsuccessful attempts by two governors, Connecticut has finally been awarded one of those highly competitive Race to the Top grants from the U.S. Department of Education. The state plans to use it to help poor children prepare for kindergarten and elementary school.

Having requested and failed to get as much as $175 million in the past, the state sought a modest, four-year grant of $47.6 million and received an even more modest, $12.5 million, single year of funding for expanded preschool programs. It will make a small dent in an expensive but worthy program aimed at ultimately making pre-kindergarten education available for every Connecticut child.

The grant, announced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, will fill what Mr. Duncan called "a huge, unmet need" for preschool opportunities for these children. Most of the recipients will be homeless children or those in foster care for whom preschool opportunities could be life changing.

It is unclear if the $12.5 million represents the start of a four-year commitment of such funding. Republicans, who next year will control the Senate and House, could choose not to fund these types of programs. That would be a mistake because early education produces better prepared students and long-term benefits. Republicans, however, may choose to focus on short-term budget cuts.

The one-year grant will provide preschool experience for 428 additional children in 14 cities and towns, including Groton, which will have 15 additional spaces in its Early Childhood Development Center next year, thanks to the federal funds.

The funds would allow the state to expand existing preschool programs in communities that are currently unable to serve hundreds of needy children each year. The largest beneficiary is Bridgeport, which will get funds for 180 more spaces in its preschool program. It is the only large city in the state receiving a portion of this particular grant. The other municipalities receiving financial help through the grant will be Griswold, Derby, East Haven, Hamden, Hebron, Killingly, Manchester, Naugatuck, Seymour, Torrington, Vernon and Wolcott.

The grant represents a step forward in the 10-year, $200 million pre-kindergarten effort announced by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last June. There are about 75,000 three- and four-year-olds in Connecticut and more than 19,000 of them are eligible for subsidized childcare programs, such as the federally funded Head Start and state-funded programs.

Connecticut's four failed attempts to receive Race to the Top grants included two requests for funds for early childhood education. A year ago, Connecticut applied for $37.5 million in Race to the Top Funds to overhaul day care centers to improve both their safety and educational values. The application was rejected, in part, because the state did not present what one of the judges called a high quality plan to improve the effectiveness and retention of early childhood educators who work with children with high needs.

In its most recent application, the state guaranteed that every teacher will have a bachelor's degree and each class will have a teacher for every nine students. They will be paid the same wages as local public school teachers. The intent is to improve the retention rate of these early childhood educators. The state was one of 27 states competing this year and one of 13 selected.

Even though these preschool programs are costly, providing them for the neediest children, many of whom are homeless, in foster care or from one-parent homes, is actually a sound investment. If these children begin school with an equal chance at success as their classmates, they and all of society will benefit over time.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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