Christine Stuart photo

Should we pay at-risk parents a minimum wage to attend school with their preschool age children? That’s an idea that Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy floated Thursday during a speech to the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance.

He said the idea would be to help these parents through their own maladies or mental illnesses or even intergenerational unemployment and turn them into productive employees. He opined it would probably cost far less than having their children repeat a cycle of poverty.

“There are things we should be thinking about outside the box,” he told the group of early childhood providers Thursday.

He admitted that the idea hasn’t been fully fleshed out and wasn’t necessarily a proposal.

“You just asked me about a thought,” Malloy said. “. . . It was a theoretical presentation of an idea.”

Malloy suggested that it would be easy to identify 1,000, 2,000, or even 3,000 at-risk parents per year. And if the state concentrated on those parents “imagine what a difference that would make,” he added.

“Now, it’s not cheap, but neither is the alternative,” Malloy said.

He said if the system can start identifying these parents and children most at-risk then “we can start thinking further and further outside the box.”

Earlier in his speech to the group Malloy explained that maternity nurses already know which parents are most at-risk and someone needs to build a system to support those parents with services when they leave the hospital. Malloy said he can’t build that system, but he can fund it.

“If we had somebody at every hospital, at every birth, we could probably figure out which babies we need to concentrate on the most,” Malloy said. “I think we need to build a system that identifies the babies we need to support.”

The comment received a round of applause.

Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said he’s encouraged by Malloy’s depth of understanding of these issues.

“It’s really refreshing to have someone in a position of power who gets it,” Gay said.

However, Gay noted his organization is nonpartisan and doesn’t make endorsements of political candidates.

As far as Malloy’s proposal to pay at-risk parents to attend school with their children, “that was probably not a very well thought through proposal yet, but it’s thinking outside-of-the-box about what it will take to address those most at-risk families,” Gay said. “It’s an interesting idea. I’m glad to see he’s thinking outside-of-the-box.”

Gay said it made him think of a statistic regarding mothers who don’t finish high school — their children are 11 times more likely to drop out of high school than those whose mothers attended college.

He said there are a lot of statistics about education, but “nothing is 11 times.” And since a person’s educationl level is listed on their child’s birth certificate, it’s known from birth which children are the most likely to succeed.

“We know at birth who those people are who are most at-risk,” Gay said. What has to happen next is someone has to design a system “that intentionally tries to reach families who are at-risk with services that are appropriately designed.”

Gay pointed out that “it’s the wealthy kids who go to college and don’t come back. The poor kids coming out of our cities are the ones most likely to be in the workforce down the road. We need to make sure we’re closing that gap. To simply say this is the schools’ problem — that’s not what the research tells us.”

Malloy’s opponent, the former Ambassador to Ireland Tom Foley, was invited to speak to the group but was unable to attend Thursday. Gay said they hoped to find a time for Foley to address the group in the future.

In a phone interview Thursday, Foley wondered “who would be paying” these parents minimum wage?

He said if the proposal is to have the state pay the parents, then he thinks the idea is “ridiculous.”

That’s not to say that Foley, who has two preschool age children, doesn’t believe in state funding for preschool.

Foley said preschool is “one of the things shown to be effective,” and it’s the “one thing Gov. Malloy and I agree on.”

But Foley said the money to help fund preschool education should be “based on need.”

He said he pays for his children to have an educational experience because he can afford it. He said the state should be helping fund slots for children based on their parents’ income.

Earlier this year the legislature and Malloy created an Office of Early Childhood and funded an additional 1,020 slots for preschool students. The legislation also asked the Office of Early Childhood to come up with a plan for universal access for 3- and 4-year-olds. The funding for the program will come from a combination of bonding and will also use Tobacco Settlement Funds.