Whether the state has an obligation to support preschool is at the center of a recent development in the CCJEF vs. Rell case. CCJEF, the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, is a group of municipal leaders, educators, advocates, parents and children who filed suit against the state’s education funding system in 2005 claiming that the state has not met its constitutional obligation to provide an adequate and equitable public education to all students. Since the time of the original filing, the State Superior Court issued a pretrial ruling in 2010 that the state is must provide an adequate standard of quality for public education for all children. As the trial date loomed, in September 2015, the state filed a motion in the case to exclude preschool as a potential remedy in the final decision of the case, claiming that the state constitution does not specifically include preschool as part of a public education. In a victory for CCJEF, in October 2015 the State Superior Court denied the state’s motion, stating that a “high quality preschool is an essential component of suitable educational opportunity.”
This ruling represents an important shift in the way we think about preschool as a necessary component of a public education. As the CCJEF case progresses, the state may consider the creation of a “universal” preschool system as one potential remedy for public school inequity. There is already widespread agreement that we must invest early in children’s lives, especially low-income children and children of color. However, early education advocates recognize that in order for preschool to be effective, it must be of high-quality. This means it must adhere to universal early learning standards, have low teacher-student ratios, and employ highly-qualified educators (who are offered competitive compensation so that they can be attracted to and retained in the field). Early education advocates have also emphasized that the state must fund preschool at a rate that will support all of the above. Access to high-quality preschool experiences is but one strategy among several to reduce our state’s persistent achievement gap and reduce inequities between low income students and students of color and their affluent, white peers.
While access to high-quality preschool programs remains vital to combat the achievement gap, as a state we must ensure that gains achieved in early education are sustainable in a high-quality K-12 system for all public school students. And though equitable investments in preschool and K-12 schooling are necessary, improving life opportunities in communities across the state requires an affirmative investment in the systems and programs that impact the day to day lives of Connecticut’s citizens. Specifically, we must invest in equitable opportunity for all citizens in housing, health, and higher education to impact educational experiences. Investments in early childhood experiences are only sustainable if we consider the ways that education, housing, health and higher education are connected to support children on their journey from childhood to adulthood.
Equity must begin early. The inequities in life opportunity begin long before children cross the threshold of their local public school. While preschool alone is not the panacea for deep race inequities in education and life outcomes, preschool provides one opportunity to ready children for future education. The state superior court argued that preschool is “essential” to “sustainable” life opportunities in its ruling. As arguments in the CCJEF vs. Rell case progress, we encourage advocates, stakeholders and citizens to stay focused on the importance of early education as a crucial driver of equitable access to opportunities for all of our state’s children.