Bill Expanding, Bolstering Early Childhood Education Unveiled in State Senate

But realities of lack of funding and inadequate facilities are among obstacles facing wide-ranging legislation

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex)
A package of bills that would expand and improve early childhood education and services in the state got a boost yesterday in the state Senate.

But it also became clearer that the wide-ranging proposals face daunting real-life challenges going forward.

As expected, the state Senate’s education committee easily passed the package of a half-dozen bills, most notably one that includes the expansion of state-funded preschool programs across the state and another requiring full-day kindergarten in every school district.

The package got an extra boost from Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who used his parliamentary powers to substitute on the committee and vote in favor of every bill.

But predicting when – or if — any of these things will actually happen is far trickier, as questions arose during the two-hour hearing over where funding would come from and exactly how the new programs would work.

The proposal to extend full-day kindergarten, for example, drew little opposition in principle. About 20 percent of districts now do not offer full-day programs. But advocates and others pointed out it is not just a matter of money – an estimated $78 million more — but also the availability of facilities and scheduling questions.

Another proposal — to create a cabinet-level department of early childhood — was praised as a way to better coordinate functions, but others wondered if it would be impeded by bureaucratic rules – including from the federal government – requiring specific funds to go to specific departments.

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the committee’s chair, acknowledged afterward that the panel’s votes were really only a first steps toward crafting the bills and finalizing what these programs would look like and how they would be paid for.

“No bill is ever perfect in its first inception,” she told reporters afterward. “Now, the real work begins. This is just the framework, and let’s now figure out how to get a true solid bill that we can put on the board for a vote.”

[related]Ruiz did not put a timeframe on when the bills could move up to a full vote of the Senate, but she said the first action would likely be on the best-known of the bills: a proposal to expand the state’s program of full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds to nearly 100 more districts.

The Legislature has started its review of Gov. Chris Christie’s fiscal 2017 state budget, which does not include any additional funding for preschool programs. An expansion as envisioned by the new bill would cost $103 million just to start.

“The Senate president and leadership have made the commitment to find this funding,” Ruiz said. “So I think during the budget process that will be one of the focal points.”

The state senator from Newark –a former early childhood teacher — said other proposals still need considerable work, especially given the questions raised beyond just the funding.

“These are all good points people have brought up, and the point is I don’t think we have a long-term blueprint for addressing them,” she said.