Research shows that low-income children who have access to pre-school do better than their counterparts, so a group of early childhood advocates is still having a hard time getting their heads around the idea that the state would seek to eliminate pre-school from a school funding lawsuit.
The state‘s Sept. 15 motion “runs counter to decades of educational research and Connecticut’s bold public investment in early childhood education,” Maggie Adair, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said Wednesday at a Capitol press conference.
The press conference preceded the delivery of letters signed by 80 organizations and 75 individuals asking Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen to withdraw the state’s motion.
But Malloy and Jepsen said it’s not about whether the state supports pre-school, it’s about how education is defined by the state constitution.
“When you examine a constitution you have to look at what the framers of that constitution or the people who last touched it, what circumstances they were dealing with or what they would have imagined,” Malloy said last month. “That does not mean we shouldn’t be committed to early childhood education.”
As governor, Malloy promised move as “rapidly as financial circumstances will allow us to getting to universal pre-k,” but said he will continue to support Jepsen’s office in fighting to remove it from the school funding lawsuit.
Malloy said he took an oath to support the Connecticut constitution and currently pre-k is not covered under that constitution. If the court decides differently, “then so be it. You don’t have a bigger supporter of early childhood education here,” Malloy added.
Adair doesn’t deny that Malloy has made a substantial commitment to early childhood education, but she wonders what happens when he leaves office. It’s a concern lawmakers have too.
Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, said what the motion tells him is that the state is willing to say the “future of our children in this state is connected to the vagaries of elections.”
“It’s not that I didn’t believe people are serious in their intentions, but elections change things,” Holder-Winfield said. “I do know that we already know early childhood education if it’s effective helps us to do something about this achievement gap.”
The court case will outlast state budgets and the political tides that ebb and flow, advocates argued Wednesday.
The motion filed by Assistant Attorney General Ralph Urban argues that in 1965 at the state’s last constitutional convention pre-school wasn’t included as part of state supported education as defined in the constitution.
“There was not in 1965, nor is there today, a statutory mandate to provide public preschool or preschool services,” Urban argues in the motion.
Adair argues that convention was 46 years ago and things have changed.
“We have changing demographics, a changing world, a global economy, we have a huge achievement gap,“ she said. “We now know, what we didn’t know in 1965 about the extensive research about pre-school and its long lasting impacts.”
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said she knows right now that there’s not access in an equitable way to education for every child born in the United States. Remedies to these human and civil rights issues often do come through the courts, she added.
“You can’t when you’re a state use it [pre-school] when its convenient to help you solve an issue, and when it’s not convenient legally say let’s take it out,” Bye said.
She said research shows access to pre-school will help lower the achievement gap, so “Why would they take the only known remedy away from them?”
Jepsen argued it’s not about convenience or lowering the achievement gap.
“My office, on behalf of the state, has not questioned the potential benefits of pre-school education or the wisdom of providing such services to Connecticut children as a matter of public policy,” Jepsen said. “Rather, we have filed a motion asking the Court to decide – as a legal, not policy matter – whether the Connecticut constitution’s guarantee of “free public elementary and secondary schools” was intended to encompass pre-school services.”
He said not raising the issue in court would be a disservice to the citizens of Connecticut.
Advocates beg to differ.
“In Connecticut we have the largest achievement gap of any state in the country,” Merrill Gay, executive director of the New Britain Early Childhood Collaborative, said. “Our poor children, our English language learners, our children of color, lag far behind the academic achievement of their wealthier white peers.”
“We know from annual kindergarten inventory that children in our cities are far less prepared for school than children coming from the suburbs,” Gay said. “We also know, a high-quality, early childhood education can help close that gap.”
Advocates said the best thing Malloy, an original plaintiff in the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding lawsuit, could do would be settle the lawsuit before it goes to trial again in 2014. They said they understand he’s now a defendant in the lawsuit, however, settling this out of court will cost the state less money in the long run.
Adair said the state is looking at the short term cost of going through discovery and providing expert witnesses and not the long term costs of the motion.
“It would be much less costly to the state if they did a speedy negotiation of this lawsuit outside of the courts,” Adair said.