For NJ Early Education Advocates, State of the Union Carries Hopeful Message

John Mooney | February 15, 2013 | Education
President's call for universal preschool for needy children resonates with state's Abbott v. Burke school equity funding

When President Obama in his State of the Union address called for universal quality preschool for children of need, his proposal wasn’t too far from what New Jersey has been trying for a decade.

The state’s Abbott v. Burke school equity rulings — despite continuing controversy — specify two years of preschool with certified teachers, small class sizes, and other quality standards in the state’s most impoverished cities.

This year, more than 45,200 three- and four-year olds were served by the state-funded program in 31 districts, including Newark, Paterson, and Camden — as well as four others receiving full funding under an expansion of the program launched in 2008.

Partial funding went to another 110 districts, covering an additional 7,400 four-year olds with at least half-day programs, the state said.

“Certainly our standards would make us eligible for what the president is proposing,” said Steve Barnett, director of the [link: Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER)] at Rutgers University.

And if federal money is forthcoming, Barnett said it would be especially fitting for New Jersey, given that its efforts to expand beyond the Abbott districts have slowed, if not stopped, since 2009 due to budget constraints.

“It’s not entirely clear what they are proposing yet, but New Jersey would fit the bill, especially since we have basically stalled since the recession,” Barnett said.

Obama’s call clearly emboldened early education advocates in New Jersey and nationwide, with his pledge for federal assistance of as much as $10 billion a year toward not only preschool but also full-day kindergarten.

The state currently only requires half-day kindergarten; fewer than 360 of 511 districts provide full-day kindergarten. The rest are either half-day programs or a combination of half- and full-day classes, some due to budget constraints, others due to space and scheduling limitations.

State Assemblywoman Connie Wagner (D-Bergen) is primary sponsor of a pending bill to require full-day kindergarten statewide, and she said yesterday that Obama’s call couldn’t have come at a better time.

“We have to have universal access for all students to full-time kindergarten, regardless of ZIP code,” Wagner said. “I know saying it and putting in place for next year is unrealistic, but we have to develop a plan.”

Wagner said it may not come down as a mandate, but she believes that there needs to be at least strong financial incentives, including the possibility of federal money.

“What people don’t realize is that it is many middle-class towns that don’t have [full-day kindergarten],” she said. “Once people realize the need and that we don’t have full-day kindergarten for everybody, I think there will be a lot of support for that.”

The Christie administration didn’t have much to say about Obama’s proposal, beyond putting out the most recent data on enrollment and funding. But state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has repeatedly said that preschool remains one of the state’s most effective investments.

Gov. Chris Christie himself hasn’t always been so sympathetic, but he has maintained funding in his past two budgets, while appropriating $591 million this year, the administration said. His budget for next year will come at the end of the month.

David Sciarra of the Education Law Center, the advocacy group that led the Abbott litigation, said Obama’s echo of New Jersey’s standards should serve as a “proud moment” for the state. But he concurred that it will take both state and federal resources to reach all low-income students.

Barnett said the state was indeed once a national leader under Abbott, although others have started to catch up and surpass it.

“We don’t compare nearly as well as we did five years ago,” he said. “Others have passed us by. Iowa went from below us to twice as many in preschool.”