Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Donald Williams and Sen. Beth Bye (Christine Stuart photo)

(Updated 3:49 p.m.) Sen. President Donald Williams and House Speaker Brendan Sharkey announced plans Wednesday to use $10 million from Tobacco Settlement funds and $10 million in bonding every year for the next 10 years to implement a universal preschool program.

“This is a winner across the board,” Williams said at a Capitol press conference. “An extraordinary step forward to universal pre-K.”

The total cost of the program would be $200 million over 10 years. Half of the money would come from borrowing and half would come from the Tobacco Settlement fund. The money from borrowing would be used to expand classroom capacity and resources, while the Tobacco Settlement funds would act as operating funds to pay the salaries of the teachers.

The plan is to use the money to fund about 50,000 slots for public school children ages three and four years old. Currently, there are 16,420 children aged three and four attending preschool programs in Connecticut public schools. There are another 10,000 children receiving services through the School Readiness program, and 11,400 are receiving early childhood services outside the public school system.

In total, there are about 84,000 children in that age group in Connecticut, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. In Connecticut, only 8 percent of 3-year-olds and 13 percent of the 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded preschool programs.

Funding for these preschool spots also dropped from $9,356 in 2011 to $8,388 in 2012.

In February, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed funding 4,000 new preschool slots by 2019. The slots would go to the neediest children, in some of the poorest school districts in the state. It provides funding of $11.5 million for slots and $2.3 million in startup costs for districts that need to renovate classroom space to accommodate preschoolers.

The money Williams proposed Wednesday would go to public schools. The classroom size would be limited to 16 students and all teachers would need to be certified, Williams said. The retiring senate president said they’ve been working with the Malloy administration on the plan and it would be in addition to the new slots Malloy created through his budget proposal.

At an unrelated event Wednesday, Malloy said he is willing to work with everyone on universal pre-kindergarten, but he said he did not “know anything about their plan.”

“I’m the guy who brought that phrase to the Connecticut state Capitol and I want to work with everyone on it, but it would be impossible for me to comment on details of that program,” he said.

The governor explained the provisions of his own plan to move toward universal pre-k, including funding “planning grants.”

“A lot of this is about capacity,” he said. “For communities that still don’t have full-time kindergarten, a lot of that issue is about capacity. We need to do a lot of work in the field, in the towns I should say, about capacity and understand how quickly we can gear up for this.”

In 2011, the state was facing a “real crisis” in terms of its budget, Sharkey said. As a result, the state had to address the initial and immediate need of closing a budget gap, “but if you have vision you also begin planting seeds for future growth,” he said.

Sharkey, who gave Williams full credit for the proposal, said they’re starting to see those “seeds take root” and now is time to expand on early childhood education.

The $10 million in Tobacco Settlement funds for the first year already have been dedicated for another purpose. Williams admitted Wednesday that they’re still looking for a source of operating funds for the first year of the program.

“But for the other nine years we’re finding the dollars we’re going to need without displacing other important services,” Williams said.

The Appropriations Committee budget swept about $12.5 million from the Tobacco Settlement fund, which is supposed to be applied to smoking cessation programs to help residents quit.

There’s about $106 million from the Tobacco Settlement fund in the state budget. In 1998, 48 states sued the major tobacco companies, arguing the companies had always known smoking was a health hazard, and the cost of caring for victims of smoking was draining state health care systems.

The states won, but the use of the money has been contentious. A national organization found that Connecticut’s spending of the money on tobacco cessation programs has dropped over the past year. It went from 23rd in the nation to 34th in the nation.

Asked about the use of the tobacco funds on early childhood education, Williams said, “I don’t think there’s any greater investment in the health of our children, whether you’re talking about their intellectual and educational health or in fact their physical health, than early childhood education.”

House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said it’s like the Democrats never learn from their mistakes. He said adding more borrowing and raising the Tobacco Settlement funds makes no sense no matter how popular the idea.

“We just don’t stop. It gets worse and worse,” Cafero said. “The worst part about it is the very kids we’re trying to give spots to are going to have to pay for this.”