It is troubling that several of the budget proposals floating around the State Capitol call for the merger of the Office of Early Childhood into the State Department of Education. It was just three years ago that we finally brought together services touching families with young children from five different agencies into one stand-alone Office of Early Childhood, under the direction of a commissioner.
Childcare licensing and newborn home-visiting came from the Department of Public Health. State-funded child development centers and the Care4Kids child-care subsidy program came from the Department of Social Services. The Birth-to-Three program that provides services to children with developmental delays came from Department of Developmental Services. The School Readiness program and Head Start came from the State Department of Education and CT Charts-A-Course staff (the state’s early childhood workforce registry) came from the Board of Regents of Higher Ed.
Bringing all of these disparate programs into one agency with one person in charge was important for two reasons.
First, early childhood is defined as its own category in brain development because of how very different the brain functions and grows in these early years. During the first three years of life, children’s brains grow faster than at any other time, and the basic neural circuitry is built. Adverse experiences in early childhood have lasting impacts. The programs that serve our very youngest children are focused on healthy development, nurturing and play-based learning. Our youngest children are not just small adults; they have different needs and as such, require a different approach than older children. Delivering services in this context is what the Office of Early Childhood is doing.
Secondly, by bringing all the early childhood services in Connecticut to one agency, Connecticut can coordinate outreach and programming for young children in one place. We can focus on improving the quality of all of these services and make sure that they work together. Quality improvement has been slowed down by the current state budget crisis, but that isn’t a reason to give up on the importance of better coordination.
The projected savings of dismantling the Office of Early Childhood is two staff positions. The projected loss is immeasurable. The population served by the Office of Early Childhood – children ages birth to 5 – is one of the most vulnerable in the state. Nearly 45 percent of children under the age of three live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.
Moving the Office of Early Childhood under the State Department of Education will diminish the importance of early childhood after years of work to get it recognized for the critical period in child development that it is. It is a bad idea that should be rejected.
Merrill Gay is the Executive Director of the CT Early Childhood Alliance.