Published May 11, 2021
By The Day Editorial Board

Anyone knows, having once been a kindergartner, that from the very first day, school is a competition. No matter how individualized the instruction or how low the student-to-teacher ration, school is about meeting goals, achieving, reaching targets, graduating. All around the room are other kids who look taller, faster, smarter, readier. And that's just the girls.

Educators have been saying for decades that every grade in school works better and more successfully for children who arrive feeling ready to learn from the start. That seems like common sense, and yet the cost of adding another year or two to the tax bills for public education has in most places prevented the establishment of free pre-Kindergarten. In a unique pairing of need and opportunity, that could be about to change.

In his recent address to Congress, President Biden announced another of his plans for economic recovery. The American Families Plan includes a proposal for universal pre-kindergarten classes and the funds to support it. It could not come at a better time, after the schooling disruptions of the COVID pandemic. The plan is not meant just to remedy the lack of in-person classes of the past year and a half, however. It aims to prevent lifelong obstacles in the way of many families now and the families that today's children will someday have.

Overall, the president is seeking four more years of free public education, two of pre-K and two of community college. He wants to spend $20 billion per year in order to offer free pre-kindergarten to all three- and four-year-olds, regardless of their families' incomes. This would be primarily through partnerships with states, but the federal government would work directly with preschools in states that don't participate. It could benefit 5 million children and save the average family $13,000, according to the White House.

This plan is particularly of interest to Connecticut. Universal pre-K could help address the stubborn achievement gap in this wealthy state with its deep pockets of disadvantage, although not necessarily in the standardized testing scores the state uses as a way to compare progress. Findings released this week from years of study of free pre-K in Boston show both girls and boys doing better throughout their school years, more likely to graduate and having fewer disciplinary issues — even though their standardized test scores were about the same as others'. Instead, the researchers say, pre-K's influence may come from the huge boost in self-confidence and socialization that comes with being comfortable in early grades. For these kids, school is less daunting.

Free pre-K and programs for early childhood have another benefit the president is seeking for families: Parents would be free go to work with assurance that their kids are safe and learning.

Connecticut has tried to take the free pre-K route before; some places have succeeded in supporting it at least for a time. The Friendship School in Waterford originally offered free enrollment in a partnership with New London, and Lyme-Old Lyme schools have offered free pre-K to all 4-year-olds living in the two towns. On a larger scale of ambition, Gov. Dan Malloy tried to get $11.5 million in his FY 2015 budget plan for more than 1,000 pre-kindergarten spots, with a priority for low-income children. He hoped the state would have universal access to pre-kindergarten programs by the end of 2019. Democrats in the legislature went even further, hoping to provide slots for 50,000 children in a 10-year program.

Local educators and advocates are preparing for funds being made available to schools through the American Rescue Plan, which Congress has already approved. Among them is the New London Partnership for Student Success, a group that includes the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, LEARN, city officials and representatives of the city schools. The group plans to seek funding for free pre-K in New London schools.

While Connecticut has tried on its own to develop true pre-kindergarten for all, this is another and better chance to overcome the chasm between families that expect to succeed and those who really don't see how they can. It begins with children being able to learn and parents being free to earn. This is not a handout; Congress should see it as an investment that needs to be made. Nothing less seems to be enough.