With little time before the start of the next school year, the Christie administration has moved quickly to alert New Jersey school districts about the eligibility and rules for $25 million in new preschool money added at the last minute to the state’s fiscal 2018 budget.
The state Department of Education on Tuesday sent out the guidance for the new funds, setting an August 21 deadline for districts to apply.
And answering one big question, the department said the money would be earmarked for 108 districts with high concentrations of poverty that already qualify for early childhood money.
Gov. Chris Christie, in approving the new funds as part of a fiscal 2018 budget deal with the Legislature’s Democratic leadership, had raised the question when he vetoed budget language that would have targeted the funds to those districts exclusively.
But state Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington said yesterday that for the time being, the money would indeed go to those districts.
"Absolutely, we are still looking to target students in need," she said, following the State Board of Education meeting yesterday. When asked if it would go beyond those districts, Harrington said: “Not right now.”
The quick action on the funds was welcome news to advocates who had pressed for the inclusion of the additional money in the budget deal.
“Time is very short, and kudos for the department for stepping up and getting this out so quickly,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. Zalkind noted that the money is a good down payment on the state’s school funding law from a decade ago, but is only a small fraction of the funds required to serve all low-income students.
“There are at least 35,000 kids in these districts who were promised pre-K and never received it,” she said.
Even with the state’s move, however, time remains very short for the coming school year, and Harrington said she recognized that it will be tough to have new programs ready in a month.
"We wanted to make sure that the dollar amounts could be utilized this year and could help to support kids, and when you have a tight timeline, you want to make sure what is the best way for that to happen,” she said.
“So, by September, we may have some folks ready to go, but we're looking by November that (many) would be ready."
Still, Harrington said, some programs could at least be ready to expand by the start of the school year. "If we're seeing expanded services — say, if you are half-day moving to full-day or just four-year-olds moving to three-year-olds — I think there is enough time," she said.