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Public, Private Funds Help Expand Preschool Access to More Needy Kids in NJ

New group -- Pre-K Our Way -- plans to spend $1 million annually over next few years to lobby for increased early childhood education

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Fifteen years after the start of court-ordered universal preschool for New Jersey’s most impoverished cities, early childhood education for the state’s poorest children is getting a boost this spring with the help of both public and private money.

The public funding is coming by way of a $66 million federal grant that is enabling the state to expand, at least in part, the programs now in 31 districts under the Abbott v. Burke rulings into another nearly 20 communities -- the first major expansion of the program in a decade.

Last week the state finished choosing the 17 districts that will be funded under the program to add another nearly 10,000 children over four years. They are Atlantic City, Absecon, Hamilton Township (Atlantic), Egg Harbor City, Galloway, Mount Holly, Bellmawr, Lindenwold, Upper Deerfield, Clayton, Paulsboro, North Bergen, Freehold Borough, Berkeley, Lakewood, Clifton, and Bound Brook.

But a smaller sum coming from a new private group may be just as important. Pre-K Our Way is leading a campaign to pressure the state’s politicians to provide the money to significantly expand preschool into many more districts.

Led by business and foundation leaders, Pre-K Our Way was launched this winter with the help of luminaries like former Govs. Thomas Kean and Jim Florio. It starts its push in earnest this month, with three regional forums to press the cause of preschool across the state.

The group’s leaders said it is a matter of making preschool a renewed priority as it has become in the neighboring states of New York and Pennsylvania, as well as elsewhere across the country in states like Oklahoma and Georgia.

“If people want to pay $20,000 to 30,000 a year, pre-K is there for them,” said Brian Maher, former chairman of Maher Terminals and a major funder of the group. “One of the indications to how important this is is that people who can afford it, pay for it.”

But as an early private backer of one of the Abbott preschools in Newark’s Ironbound section, Maher said he wants to see the program expanded to those who can least afford it and arguably most benefit from it.

He and former state Treasurer Sam Crane, who is directing the group, said it is a matter of building grassroots support that in turn catches the attention of Trenton. The forums will invite those from communities that were earmarked by the state for programs that have yet to come to fruition.

“It is a question of public and political will,” Crane said. “I have seen time and time again that when an issue has risen to the top and people are talking about it in their communities and to their legislators, you start to get the action into Trenton.”

Maher said the aim is to carry the push at least until the 2017 gubernatorial election, with the group expected to spend an estimated $1 million a year.

“We’re looking at two to three years,” he said, “when I would hope by the election, both candidates -- and we’re seeing this as a bipartisan issue -- are arguing about how to fund it, not whether it should be done.”

It’s an odd position for New Jersey to be in after it was a national pioneer in public preschool with the state Supreme Court’s 1998 Abbott ruling extending all-day preschool to all three and four-year-olds in the 31 affected districts.

The first such requirement of its kind, the preschool included requirements for certified teachers, small class sizes, and a structured, research-based curriculum.

But while the program grew in the Abbott districts, now serving 45,000 children and nearly 90 percent of eligible students, state officials said, efforts to expand it beyond those borders have all but stalled.

The state’s school funding law included provisions to expand it to another 90 districts with high concentrations of poor students, but that stalled after a year and just three more districts added.

Gov. Chris Christie has continued to fund the Abbott programs and now four additional districts at the same per-pupil level, but nothing beyond that. His fiscal 2016 budget includes $655 million overall for preschool, $611 million for the state-funded program, a 1 percent increase from this year.

Some have lamented that a state that was once a leader in preschool is barely keeping up.

“It is discouraging that we haven’t moved forward, and I’m afraid been losing the momentum,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

“There always seems to be a way to find funding for priorities,” she said. ‘We need to make this a much bigger priority.”

The administration is eager for the new grant as a starting point. The 17 districts were selected out of 56 that were invited to apply. Four of the districts have never had any preschool before, and this will bring the Abbott standards to all of them.

“We’re really excited about the possibilities of the grant,” said Ellen Wolock, the state’s director of early childhood education. “This will help 17 districts implement high-quality preschool. They’ll have certified teachers, comprehensive curriculum, and all the supports that will help change children’s lives.”

The leaders of Pre-K Our Way said they would like to start by seeing the state at least match that amount in the first year, in which the 17 districts have not just four-year-olds, but three-year olds, too. That would cost about $25 million.

“Where the resources come from, I don’t know,” Maher said, “That’s not my job, but really the job of the governor and the legislators to figure out how you fund it. But they won’t do that until there is enough political will to push it.”

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