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Sweeney Calls for Investing $165 Million in Pre-K, Early-Childhood Programs

Democratic plan would extend Abbot-like services to 17 districts, restore ‘wraparound’ programs to 31 Abbott districts

sweeney
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

New Jersey’s long history of state-funded preschool may have opened another chapter yesterday with Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s proposed public investment plan that would include more than $165 million over two years in expanded preschool and other early-childhood programs.

Significant details are still to be worked out -- and the political and financial prospects are even more uncertain. Sweeney’s expected run for governor in 2017 certainly plays into the calculus as well.

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But if enacted, the proposal from Sweeney and other Democratic leaders yesterday could be the first noteworthy expansion of the state’s landmark program since the late 2000s, and among the largest since the state Supreme Court first ordered universal preschool for New Jersey’s 31 poorest cities.

The Democratic plan wants to expand that Abbott-designed program of two years of full-day preschool to another 17 districts.

The proposal calls for a two-year phase-in, with $62.7 million in the fiscal 2017 budget and $103 million in fiscal 2018.

Which districts those would be is just one of the questions to be resolved, but one likely possibility would be the 17 districts now receiving federal aid to start programs for four-year-olds from low-income families.

The proposal would also restore additional services in the Abbott districts for before- and after-school programs, so-called wraparound offerings. Cuts to those services over the past six years have been devastating for the Abbott districts and their families, officials said, as they seek to enroll more students. The proposal did not say how much that would cost.

A third piece of the proposal – also without a price tag -- would create a loan pool funded by both public and private dollars to help establish new preschool programs across the state.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) has led the latest push for expanded preschool in her role as chair of the Senate education committee, convening a hearing earlier this fall to start exploring the options.

She said yesterday at a the news conference in the State House that for every $1 invested in preschool, research shows it results in a $7 return in education and other social-service costs.

“New Jersey is a leader in high-quality preschool education, and its programs have been identified as a national model, but too many families still do not have access to these programs,” she said in the announcement.

“We need to expand early-childhood education throughout the state and implement creative ways of funding innovative programs. This is a major step forward in that process."

Yet even if enacted and funded, the plan is just an incremental step toward a goal -- for some -- of universal preschool statewide or even just in communities with large low-income populations. Estimates for achieving the latter, which would involve another 100 districts -- have come in at close to $300 million a year.

Advocates nevertheless cheered the proposal yesterday, acknowledging the details are light at this point but grateful that Democratic leadership has made early-childhood programs one of its top priorities.

“We are on the legislative agenda,” said Sam Crane, coordinator of Pre-K Our Way, a privately funded public campaign for expanding preschool in the state. “We are in the same breath now as transportation trust fund and other priorities.”

Crane said that not only new programs but also restoring wraparound services for the Abbott districts was essential. “They are the flagship in this state, and that is a critical point to what they serve,” he said.

The next steps will be a set of bills from the Democratic leaders, lawmakers said, likely to come in the new session after the new year.

And there will be plenty of questions as to what the state can afford in the face of rising pension costs, not to mention other priorities like restoring the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

But Crane was among those who said the Democrats putting a clear price tag on their proposal was a significant gesture in moving that debate beyond general pledges of support.

“Anybody can make promises, but that is testament to the seriousness of their proposal,” he said.

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