Advocates for Expanded Preschool Gather to Rally Support for More Funding

Democrat-backed legislation would allocate millions to provide pre-K programs to more 3- and 4-year-olds

The push to expand preschool offerings in New Jersey had a good day yesterday, with numerous state politicians and policy advocates publicly lining up behind the idea.

Whether the outpouring of support leads to any additional programs or more preschool seats anytime soon remains to be seen.

The main event was a morning press conference in at an elementary school in Clifton, where Democratic legislative leaders were joined by preschool advocates, educators — and even a few children — to tout the benefits of high-quality preschool and, more specifically, a new Assembly bill that would allocate $110 million to expand preschool to another 20-plus school districts.

The state now spends about $615 million to provide all-day preschool to 45,000 3- and 4-year-olds in 35 school districts. A federal grant provides $17 million to another 17 districts to serve 4-year-olds.

The new bill would be the biggest new preschool investment in years, and coincides with similar legislation filed in the Senate last week that would provide $103 million for expanded programs.

But Democratic legislators and preschool advocates – acknowledging the state’s fiscal problems and that there are other important issues competing for available money — admitted they didn’t know where the funding would come from or when the expanded programs might actually get off the ground.

State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), one of the sponsors of the preschool legislation, was on hand for yesterday’s event. He offered both hope and caution as the state enters a new budget season and Gov. Chris Christie prepares to present his spending plan next week.

“We need to talk about it, because it does work,” he said of preschool. “We have to begin somewhere.”

But asked if he would add expanded preschool to the state budget in fiscal 2017, Prieto was noncommittal: “We’ll look at it. If it is feasible, it would be a great initiative.”

While there is a general consensus on the value of preschool, agreeing on details – and how to pay for the expanded offerings – are more problematic.

Which should be the priority districts? Should it be two years of preschool instead of one? What about insuring full-day kindergarten before even moving into preschool?

Then there’s this question: Will Christie agree to fund expanded preschool? The governor has maintained funding for existing programs but has shown little inclination to embark on a major new investment.

These were all topics of discussion yesterday as speaker after speaker stepped to the microphone in the cafeteria of Clifton’s School 17 before an audience including representatives of many of the top education groups in the state, ranging from the state school boards association to groups like United Way and Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Of particular note: A Republican, state Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Morris) is a co-sponsor of the bill. DeCroce, who was unable to attend yesterday’s event, sent along a statement in support: “As a Republican, I am proud to sponsor this bill. It is what’s right for New Jersey, where we have worked together to create opportunities for our youngest children.”

Senate Democrats, who in the last week have filed their own set of bills for expanding preschool, were not represented at yesterday’s event. However, Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and state Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) the prime sponsor of the Senate bill, did issue a statement of support.

State Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex) took the lead in the presentation yesterday, describing a lengthy process for eligible districts to put forward their plans for providing preschool. The Assembly bill would give priority to middle-class and working-class districts with high concentrations of low-income students.

Afterward, Jasey conceded that the effort would likely be measured in year rather than months.

“This is going to be a long push,” Jasey said, “and it’s starting now.”

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