Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Beth Bye, Sen. President Donald Williams, and Sen. Andrea Stillman (Christine Stuart photo)

The Senate approved legislation Friday that moves the state toward universal preschool and establishes the Office of Early Childhood.

The bill, which passed 33-2, will allow cities and towns to use $10 million in bonding to renovate classrooms and make them age appropriate. It also uses $10 million in Tobacco Settlement Funds starting on July 1, 2015 to hire teachers to manage those classrooms. The funding for the program would be authorized for five years.

Democratic lawmakers pitched the initiative they’re calling “Smart Start” on April 9 after draft budget proposals had been circulated, but Sen. President Donald Williams argued that it’s not a budget-busting idea because it uses Tobacco Settlement Funds and repurposes them.

The money in the Tobacco Settlement Fund is supposed to be used on smoking cessation programs to help residents quit smoking.

The program provides operating funds in the amount of $5,000 per student up to $75,000 per classroom with a maximum of $300,000 per district. It also authorizes $75,000 per classroom in capital grants.

The bill the Senate voted on Friday also includes the 4,000 new preschool slots proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. Those slots would go to the neediest children, in some of the poorest school districts in the state. It provides $11.5 million for slots and $2.3 million in startup costs for districts that need to renovate classroom space to accommodate preschoolers.

Currently, there are 16,420 children ages 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.

Williams said the “Smart Start” program would be voluntary so that all cities and towns would be eligible, but it would not be mandated so it wouldn’t impact the bottom line of local budgets.

“We estimate there would be another 4,000 to 5,000 students served by the program,” Williams said. That’s in addition to the 1,020 new slots that Malloy’s budget proposal creates in 2015.

“This is one program we know closes the achievement gap,” Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said.

She said the research on this issue is undeniable and even though they won’t be able to reach every child with this initiative it’s a good start.

The bill also creates the Office of Early Childhood, which would manage the money for these programs. The office was created through an executive order last year because the legislature failed to pass a bill creating it on the final night of the session. Malloy signed an executive order as a temporary measure.

Despite a few Republican amendments the proposal eventually won bipartisan support.

Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, said the goal was laudable but the ideas in the bill were never presented together for a public hearing. He said it seems to be coming out of the blue, but he eventually voted for the proposal.

Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said before the state commits to more borrowing it should fund the programs currently on the books. He proposed an amendment to fully fund the Education Cost Sharing formula which is the state funding that goes to every school district in the state. That amendment and four others were defeated.

Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, said there is evidence that access to early childhood education is a good investment.

“It’s certainly a good investment,” Boucher said. “The efforts in this area should have good bipartisan support.”

The $20 million that is part of the “Smart Start” program would go only to public schools. The classroom size would be limited to 16 students and all teachers would need to be certified, Williams said.