State Senate Committee Turns Its Attention to ‘Universal’ Preschool

John Mooney | September 18, 2015 | Education
State-required pre-K programs currently serve 50,000 low-income children

The idea of universal preschool will get some new political attention next week, when a state Senate committee starts tackling the topic – and, in particular, the difficult question of how to fund such programs.

The Senate education committee will hold a hearing Monday with advocates and educators to start hashing out the long-debated issue, with the Legislature’s Democratic leadership saying there will ultimately be some initiatives to expand early childhood education.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chair, said yesterday that while the merits of preschool have long been established and New Jersey has a relatively strong record, it’s time to “refocus” and press anew for expansion.

“We’re bringing together a broad-based group of stakeholders to talk about the importance of early childhood education, the impact of it, and the commitment we need to make to continue to expand it,” she said in an interview.

“It’s time to refocus our energy and refocus on our most important asset,” she said.

Ruiz said the discussion will surely start with preschool, now established by state law and court decree for 50,000 low-income students but lacking the funding for much expansion beyond that.

But she said she also wants to draw attention to so-called “zero to three “ programs for the very youngest children, as well as before- and after-school programs that are so critical to many families.

Ruiz added that lawmakers also need to address this fundamental issue — that only about two-thirds of school districts in the state now have full-day kindergarten programs, which are not required by law. Only a dozen states require it nationwide.

“I don’t think enough people even know that,” she said.

None of these are new issues, but a number of forces are coming together to bring more attention to the topics.

[related]A new, privately funded coalition, PreK Our Way, has started a public campaign to bring the issue to the forefront in the next gubernatorial election, and state Senate President Steve Sweeney – himself a possible candidate for governor — has called expanded preschool a “top five” priority.

“It’s one of the few programs where it is universally agreed we need to invest more,” Sweeney said at a NJ Spotlight roundtable in June.

“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.”

But it comes back to money, all sides acknowledged – simply expanding preschool to another 90 districts would likely cost about $300 million. Various ideas have been floated for coming up with the money, ranging from a dedicated business tax to a redistribution of existing resources.

Ruiz wasn’t discussing any of those options yesterday, saying that’s a discussion she hopes to begin with Monday’s hearing. Invited to speak are representatives of PreK Our Way, Advocates for Children of New Jersey, and the state’s key education groups.

Ruiz has also invited people from the law-enforcement community who have increasingly spoken out about the benefits they have seen in the head start that preschool and related programs provide to children in their communities .

“We know the big questions are funding and facilities, but right now is about highlighting the importance of this,” she said.