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Pre-K Murphy’s Way: Educators Sound off on Governor’s Spending Plan

At conference to mark 20th anniversary of Abbott v. Burke, talk turns to governor’s education budget and pledge to extend preschool statewide in four years

preschool
Credit: Creative Commons

The date was mostly coincidental, but the scheduling of yesterday’s celebration of New Jersey’s famed court-ordered preschool couldn’t have been timelier.

The daylong conference at ETS’s campus in Princeton was ostensibly to mark the 20th anniversary of the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke ruling in 1998, which brought high-standard preschool to the state’s neediest cities and towns.

But it also happened to fall a day after Gov. Phil Murphy presented a state budget that saw the first sizable increase in New Jersey’s investment in preschool in nearly a decade, along with the pledge to extend it statewide within four years.

“We’ve never had a governor say that,” said Sam Crane, the former state treasurer who has been leading the high-profile Pre-K Our Way organization that has campaigned for expanded preschool for close to two years. “That’s as good as it gets.”

Yet as much as yesterday’s conference was a lovefest for the merits and benefits of preschool in New Jersey, it also illustrated the many questions going forward in Murphy’s vision of what he said will be “universal” preschool for all New Jersey children.

First, there will need to be some clarification on exactly what Murphy intends, somewhat of a moving target until the budget is approved and guidance is put forward to districts.

Murphy has proposed adding $57 million to the $688 million now spent by the state on preschool aimed at low-income students and communities. Of that, $32.5 million would go to existing programs in the 31 Abbott districts — from Newark and Jersey City to Vineland and Millville — along with a handful of others that started in the late 2000s.

An additional $25 million would go toward further expanding the program to continue to reach another 100-plus districts that would qualify due to higher concentrations of poverty. The Democratic-led Legislature this year had already added $25 million toward the cause, and Murphy’s investment would bring that to $50 million for next year.

That alone is a big stride, many said yesterday, adding praise to how Murphy combined both expansion of new programs and support of existing ones.

“That is definitely moving in the right direction,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which led the Abbott litigation. “And I might say it was very smart to not just fund expansion but also deal with the chronic underfunding of existing programs.”

Others echoed the sentiment.

“It is incredibly exciting to be here today to be talking about 20 years of success in preschool in the context of what is a major new investment in our preschool program,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

But a longtime advocate for expanding preschool opportunities, Zalkind was also among those who said there is work to be done to transform the funding promises into actual programs that will benefit students.

The hurdles are many, including building the state Department of Education’s own capacity to guide and monitor programs, she said.

“That was a big part of the success of Abbott in the beginning,” Zalkind said. “And that infrastructure is just not there right now in the department.

“There are fewer staff to work with districts, and it’s just not clear what is the departmental structure around it anymore,” she said. “It was once a recognized leadership position and important part of education.”

A panel at the end of the yesterday’s conference highlighted districts that have been doing the work in preschool, both in Abbott and non-Abbott districts, and they said it wasn’t purely money that’s required.

Evelyn Motley, the director of Plainfield’s preschool program, said it required strong and committed leadership at the top of a district as well.

“When I think about best practices, it starts with leadership and vision,” she said. “It’s the leader who makes those decisions.”

And she and others said another requirement is proper training and support of staff, where money does make a difference. It is an especially profound need in community programs that have borne much of the responsibility in providing the preschool in districts like Newark.

Grace Blanco of the Early Learning Center at the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark, a private center that has been a major component of that city’s preschool program, said her teachers have fallen behind the pay and resources offered to Newark public school teachers.

“Our funds have been frozen for 10 years,” she said. “Teacher salaries are no longer comparable… A district teacher makes $10,000 to $15,000 more than a community provider like us, and the result is we are losing them.”

Still, at the end of the day, few wanted to rain on the news of the first progress in preschool funding in years. The overall cost of full expansion will ultimately reach the hundreds of millions — exponentially more than what Murphy proposed yesterday — but few would dismiss it as a pipe dream any longer. One pointed to what New York City accomplished four years ago, adding 50,000 children to the preschool rolls in just two years.

“I would have said it was unrealistic until Mayor de Blasio,” said Steve Barnett, another advocate in the state as director of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Crane, of the Pre-K Our Way, certainly wasn’t taking anything for granted either. While the additional money does look secure, with the Democratic leadership in the Legislature among the biggest cheerleaders, much can happen between now and June 30 when the fiscal year ends and the next budget begins.

So, while advocates gathered yesterday for the Abbott event, Crane said his work had just begun. “Our goal now is to make sure it makes it into the final document,” he said.

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