HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - The state would spend $200 million over 10 years to expand statewide prekindergarten programs under an ambitious plan that leaders of the Connecticut legislature announced Wednesday.
Pre-K programs will provide numerous benefits, said Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., appearing with other Democratic leaders at the Capitol to detail the proposal.
"It's the one absolutely proven way of reducing the achievement gap," he said. "It's the way that we have the maximum number of children reading at grade level by the third grade and beyond. It has positive health outcomes throughout the life of a child as they become an adult. It results in higher high school graduation rates. This is a winner across the board."
Funding would be split with $100 million being borrowed for classroom renovation and $100 million from the Tobacco Trust Fund for operating costs.
Lawmakers say the proposal would provide prekindergarten opportunities for potentially 50,000 children, about 60 percent of Connecticut's 3- and 4-year-olds. The program would start in the budget year beginning July 1, but "will take time to ramp up," Williams said.
Teachers would be required to be certified and programs must be accredited within three years of receiving money.
The announcement at the Capitol did not include Republican leaders, prompting the ranking GOP senator on the Education Committee to suspect election-year politics.
"It must be campaign season," said Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton.
Boucher, a former state Board of Education member, said she supports expanding prekindergarten, but opposes using money from the tobacco fund. She said it was intended to help people stop smoking and educate young people and others from taking up smoking.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed a prekindergarten program for the next budget year. His plan, which Williams said calls for 4,000 slots, would first target low-income children with the goal of achieving universal access to pre-K by the end of 2019.
Legislative leaders said their plan goes beyond Malloy's proposal.
Any city or town that can demonstrate a need for preschool may apply for money. Towns could join together to create a regional program and submit a joint proposal.
Democrats including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have made prekindergarten a priority. Backers say pre-K can erase disadvantages among low-income children starting kindergarten behind wealthier peers whose parents can afford private preschool.
However, few communities that have established universal pre-K have quickly added many classrooms.
State Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said pre-K programs can use empty space in many schools and Connecticut has a record of state and local educational partnerships "that get things done."
Follow Stephen Singer on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SteveSinger10.