Push to Expand Public Preschool Likely to Be Part of Budget Battle

Advocates recognize money is tight but argue now’s the time to roll out public pre-K to 100 low-income communities

As the state Legislature’s budget deliberations start up again this week, one topic that is sure to get a lot of attention — including on the airwaves — is whether New Jersey is to ready and willing to expand access to public preschool anytime soon.

It’s become a perennial point of debate, as advocates have sought to extend the universal preschool that is now offered in 35 low-income communities, largely driven by the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings.

It has been especially heightened under Gov. Chris Christie, who has maintained funding for the existing preschool in his first seven years in office but has yet to provide additional funds to expand it.

But the last two years has seen some new players enter the discussion, as a business coalition has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to promote the idea of expanded preschool. In addition, Democratic leaders have been quick to jump on board, at least in concept if not actual dollars.

Now comes a key moment in those efforts.

The coalition, PreK Our Way, is being led by Brian Maher, the former chairman and CEO of Maher Terminals in Port Elizabeth, and has focused its aim on the 2017 gubernatorial election and the campaigns leading up to it.

This week, the group stepped up its effort with digital and TV advertising starting in markets across the state, including more than two-dozen targeted cable ads. (Disclosure: PreK Our Way advertisements are running on NJ Spotlight.) Next week will come a phone bank that it hopes will drive calls to the legislators’ offices.

It has also signed up more than 50 organizations in support, most recently the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. This on top of hosting dozens of public forums in communities that would stand to benefit.

The ultimate hope is to expand high-quality preschool — including strict class-size limits, teacher certification requirements, and research-based curricula — to another 100 communities with heavy concentrations of low-income families.

Such expansion was written into the state’s School Funding Reform Act but never fulfilled as funding dried up, save for a smaller federally funded expansion. It would cost roughly $100 million more a year for five years, the group contends.

“We’re just delivering the message that the time has come,” said Samuel Crane, a former state treasurer who is directing the campaign. “There are 50,000 children that are waiting, and it is time to fulfill the promise of the 2008 law.”

Crane said he is confident of the Legislature’s support for such an expansion, and has won public endorsements from Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.

But Christie has yet to write it into his budget, and other financial priorities have overshadowed it, including the state’s gargantuan pension and transportation needs.

Christie in his fiscal 2018 budget proposed no increased funding for schools, including in preschool. Yet he also extended an invitation to Democratic leaders to work out a deal addressing longtime disparities in the school-funding formula.

Crane said he hopes preschool to be part of those discussions as well, but he recognized that the cause is competing with the state’s other financial needs.

“My sense is there is a lot of support [for expanded preschool], from both parties,” Crane said. “It all comes down, as everything does in this state, to putting the money up.”

And Crane acknowledged it may come down to the next governor, with the group actively pursuing those vying for the job. “We plan to meet with every major candidate,” Crane said.