New Jersey holds a unique position in the national discussion about public preschool.
For the better part of a decade, the state has been seen as having one of the nation’s more generous models of publicly funded preschool, one largely spawned by the Abbott v. Burke school-equity rulings and serving more than 40,000 children in more than 30 of the state’s neediest districts.
But for at least the past six years, New Jersey’s attempts to expand the state-funded program into more districts have run into tough economic realities — even as other states have lurched ahead.
NJ Spotlight held a roundtable on Friday to explore the status and prospects of expanding public preschool and other childhood services, titled “New Jersey’s Youngest Children: Policies at a Crossroads.”
In itself, the event held in Hamilton made some news. Speaking in one of the panels, state Senate President Steve Sweeney called expanded preschool one of his “top five” priorities, no small announcement from a man who not only runs the upper chamber but also is widely expected to run for governor in 2017.
The discussion was equally noteworthy for the feelings it evoked among the state’s preschool movement, which applauded New Jersey’s progress so far but also identified wide gaps in services.
The keynote speaker was Jacqueline Jones, the former director of New Jersey’s early education office who went on to serve in the Obama administration and is now president of the Foundation for Child Development in New York City.
She described how since she left New Jersey in 2009, preschool programs have grown in states such as New York and cities like San Antonio and Boston. And she credited New Jersey with setting the pace.
“Remember that all of these programs had a model, and what’s fascinating is it was Abbott preschool,” she said. “It was a model that children would have full-year, full-day preschool, with extraordinary criteria that really defined quality.”
“Where we are now is how do we maintain these programs,” she continued. “How do we find a way to scale it up in the places that need to be scaled up?”
Among those who crafted the Obama administration’s federal standards under the Race to the Top competition, Jones said now virtually every state has standards in place for early childhood education, and New Jersey remains a leader.
“New Jersey’s standards are really quite good, and one of the things is to keep remembering that is what you want to keep going back to,” she said.
But even as the program has become the norm in New Jersey for the 31 districts falling under Abbott — including Newark, Camden and Paterson — the gaps have also become well-established.
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Among those speaking was Katrina McCombs, director of early childhood in Camden public schools. She said close to 90 percent of eligible students in her city are receiving high-quality preschool.
But it does come in a “mixed-delivery” system that includes both district and private programs, each striving to meet the standards with different available resources.
“We know we have strong classrooms overall,” she said. ”We know there are identified areas were we can make progress.”
Some of the challenges center on students with special needs and limited English skills, panelists and others said, as well as interconnected services in after-school programs.
Others pointed out there are 4,000 early-childhood programs across the state, with the former Abbott programs only making up a fraction of them.
And recent changes in state regulations for those programs has limited their expansion as well, if not forced many to scale back or even close, since families eligible for preschool do not necessarily qualify for the “wraparound” programs.
“I think the biggest impact has been financial for the childcare providers,” said Beverly Lynn, head of Programs for Parents in Newark and formerly the Newark Preschool Council.
“There are many centers that are seeing significant financial challenges, still trying to maintain the full six-hour day while bearing the other costs.”
A great deal of it comes back to resources for all the programs, and an afternoon panel focused on the political prospects for expanding early-education services in the face of a financial crisis that has consumed the state.
To expand to just another 100 districts with the highest concentrations of poverty would be roughly $300 million a year, advocates said.
Still, Sweeney gave some hope to those on hand by vowing to support expanding preschool — albeit without many details as to how he would do so.
“It’s one of the few programs where it is universally agreed we need to invest more,” Sweeney said, adding it should include universal full-day kindergarten as well.
“I have to say, pre-K is high on our list,” he said. “When people see you are investing in the right places, it is attractive for them to come into the state.”
He said the top priorities remain resolving the state’s pension crisis and finding ways to fund transportation and higher education. “But I will say this is in the top five in my book,” he said.
That drew the attention of advocates, who said the support is critical.
“I am certainly excited to hear you say that, senator,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “I think you are absolutely right, that there has been a lot of support for preschool.”
“But from an advocacy standpoint, there has been a lot of support but no champion,” she said. “To have someone step up … it is exciting to hear this is a priority.”
Representatives from the Christie administration were invited to participate in the conference but repeatedly declined.