Privatize Preschool Education, Administration Argues

Task force says private sector should play bigger role in public preschool programs

New Jersey has been among the nation’s leaders in providing state-funded public preschool to families and children, especially low-income children.

Using a mix of public and private settings, programs in urban districts like Newark, Camden and Trenton serve more than 40,000 kids with some of the highest standards for staffing and class size in the nation.

The preschools come by mandate of the state Supreme Court in its Abbott v. Burke rulings, and it is generally agreed upon that they have been the court’s most effective tool in raising achievement in later grades.

But these preschool programs are also the nation’s most expensive, at more than $12,000 per student per year, not including capital costs. That has made them the target of those who question the expense versus the benefit.

More Room for the Public Sector

The latest salvo came last week from a task force report released by Gov. Chris Christie, recommending potential services for the state to privatize. It was a long list that ranged from automobile emissions services to state park management. The task force also suggested that New Jersey loosen its requirements on preschools and allow the private sector to handle more of everything–from construction to instruction.

Private providers are already a central piece of the current system, partnering with local districts and actually serving a majority of the children.

But the task force report said more can be done, and the program as it stands now is “effectively crowding out the private sector and driving up costs to the taxpayer without any documented benefit to the children they serve.”

Fighting Words

Not surprisingly, those words drew protests from many of the experts and advocacy groups who have put New Jersey on the map for its preschool advances. Some claim it’s an example of Christie’s efforts to dismantle public schools.

But the task force said the high cost of the program certainly raises questions if there are more efficient approaches. For example, it suggested increasing the maximum class size from the current 15 students. It also specifically cited the ever-rising public cost of building new public centers.

“The sense of the task force was it is being provided well by private providers; there’s no reason to build all this public infrastructure while the private providers can do it very well,” said task force member Todd Caliguire, a former Bergen County freeholder and now president of ANW/Crestwood Inc.

In the last decade, the state has spent $230 million on 13 new or renovated public preschool centers, from Millville to Union City, according to the New Jersey Schools Development Authority. Another 10 projects — including three in Jersey City and two in Passaic City — are either under construction or planned, totaling another $280 million, according to the SDA.

A Critical Response

The report drew immediate criticism. Ellen Frede was assistant state education commissioner and chief architect of the current system over the last decade, and said she could barely read the email exchanges among her colleagues when the report first came out.

“I was so depressed, I didn’t want to talk about it,” she said this weekend.

Frede, now co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, said no state fully privatizes its preschool programs for a reason. She said to do so would put the state back in the early days of the program when audits uncovered all kinds of problems in private centers.

“It would put us back in the mode when we had all those horrible findings and the misuse of funds,” she said. “Who would do the auditing? Department of Human Services isn’t going to do that.”

Frede maintained the situation only improved as local districts and the state itself took stronger roles. Still, she also contested the report’s claim that private providers are even being crowded out, since more preschoolers are in private settings now than they were in the beginning. Private centers make up about 65 percent of the overall enrollment, only slightly down from when the program started, she and others said.

Doing the Right Thing

“It may not be fun to work with districts, but it’s the right way to go,” Frede said. “Otherwise, they’d be kicking out all the hard-to-teach kids, and districts wouldn’t be there to catch them.”

Another critic was David Sciarra, director of the Education Law Center, the Newark organization that led the Abbott v. Burke litigation. The ELC is back in court now over Christie’s broader school funding cuts. Interestingly, Christie has not reduced preschool funds.

“To recommend that New Jersey ‘deregulate’ the preschool program by reverting back to child care standards would devastate a program that is nationally acclaimed as effective in closing early learning gaps,” Sciarra said in an email.