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An Awkward Battle Over Right To Pre-School

Early childhood education advocates say state's legal maneuver in landmark lawsuit would hurt children

Kathleen Megan

December 07, 2011

Pre-school for children from low-income families is widely acknowledged to be a vital component if the state has any hope of closing the academic achievement gap between poor and upper-income children.

But lawsuits have a way of making strange adversaries.

So, on Wednesday, a group of early childhood education advocates — who have praised Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as a champion of early childhood education — will hand-deliver letters to Malloy and Attorney General George Jepsen urging the state to withdraw its motion in a school-funding lawsuit.

Surprised and disappointed, the advocates for early childhood education say the motion, filed in September, seeks to exclude children in state-funded pre-school programs from the landmark suit filed in 2005 by the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding.

The letters written by the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance and signed by 80 organizations and 75 individuals say the motion "would deny all children below kindergarten age their constitutional rights to an adequate and equitable education."

The 2005 lawsuit — filed on behalf of 15 students and their families representing eight communities — seeks to reform the state's school finance system to ensure equal educational opportunity and quality schooling for all, according to Dianne Kaplan deVries, who is project director for the coalition.

The plaintiff children "represent the plight of children ages 3 to 18 in public school districts across the state "who are not receiving the suitable and substantially equal educational opportunities guaranteed them under the Connecticut constitution," according to a summary of the lawsuit.

The state contends that the "plaintiffs can make no legitimate claim that preschool services are part of the state constitutional right at issue in this case."

The situation puts both sides oddly at odds, as advocates and state leaders express their strong support for early childhood education while differing over their stands on the lawsuit.

Perhaps the oddest situation of all is for Malloy, who, as a strong supporter of education while mayor of Stamford, was in the coalition when it filed the lawsuit.

"Right up until he was elected [governor], he was a member of the coalition," deVries said. "It put him in a very awkward position."

Elizabeth Donahue, the governor's policy director, said that for years Malloy "has made early childhood education a top priority. From providing universal pre-K access in Stamford to his strong leadership on Connecticut's Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant application this past fall, the governor's commitment has been clear."

She added that education reform, including early chidhood education, will be his focus in the coming legislative session, but that Malloy supports Jepsen's actions for legal reasons.

Maggie Adair, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said of the state's motion: "We don't believe that this is an indication that the governor is stepping back on his commitment to early childhood education, but we have to look at the long-term ramifications. We won't have Malloy around for the next 20 years."

Jepsen said in an email that his office has not questioned "the potential benefits of pre-school education or the wisdom of providing such services to Connecticut children as a matter of public policy."

"Rather, we have filed a motion asking the Court to decide — as a legal, not policy matter — whether the Connecticut constitution's guarantee of 'free public elementary and secondary schools' was intended to encompass pre-school services."

Adair said, "The attorney general's office is doing its job by trying to narrow the exposure of the state, but I will argue that by doing that — limiting pre-school — it will cost far more money in the long run, if you don't invest in the early years."

Adair noted that the education clause in the state's constitution was written in 1965 and did not mention pre-school. However, she said, a ruling by the state Supreme Court in March 2010 in relation to this case said that "the fundamental right to an education is not an empty linguistic shell" and must meet "modern educational standards."

"Our argument is, Do we look back to a 1965 constitutional standard, or do we look at the evolving world we are in today?" Adair said. "We know we have an achievement gap we know we need to close… To not include pre-school in this debate is taking a huge step backwards."

Not much was known about pre-school in 1965, she said, but "mountains and mountains of research" show the benefits of strong early education to a child through elementary and secondary school and on into adulthood.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, a longtime advocate of early childhood education, said Malloy and Jepsen are in "a really hard position." While they support pre-school education as a policy matter, "here, they are speaking particularly to defending the state in this case."

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, was the lead attorney in a 1998 New Jersey case that he said has led to full-day, full-year, high-quality pre-school for 3- and 4-year-olds in urban communities.

He said he doesn't know of any education equity case in which a state "sort of surgically removed" an element such as pre-school education from a suit before it went to trial.

"Their argument is essentially that because pre-school isn't specifically mentioned in the constitution, the court can't consider it," Sciarra said. "It's what we would call a strict constructionist kind of argument."

Rather than "spend a lot of time and energy in court," Sciarra suggested that the state sit down with the plaintiffs and "work out a settlement that would build upon the state's commitment to date" to provide high-quality pre-school to low-income children.

"Anyone in Connecticut who thinks that you're going to be able to close the achievement gap for low-income children," Sciarra said, "without moving them into high quality pre-school starting at age 3 is dreaming."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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