Gov. Phil Murphy announced a second round of funding Thursday that would spread $26.9 million for preschool education across 33 districts in the state.
Murphy said the money — part of an $83-million pot of funds set aside in the budget under the Preschool Education Expansion Aid program, will benefit 2,320 children for the next school year starting in September.
It’s a step toward achieving Murphy’s campaign promise to provide every 3- and 4-year-old in New Jersey with access to a high-quality preschool program. The funding will go to expand and create half- and full-day pre-K for students in districts that currently don’t receive any state funding for their programs.
“Today we are pleased — pleased doesn’t quite capture it — we are thrilled to announce [this],” Murphy said at Woodmere Elementary School in Eatontown, one of the districts selected to receive funding. “We know that a high quality pre-K program can start a child on a path to higher achievement with benefits that follow them throughout their education and across their lives and which positively impact their entire community.”
Eatontown is slated to get $314,175 that would allow it to open 30 new seats for 3- and 4-year-old children. Those seats will be filled via a lottery system.
‘…significant’ first step
Pre-K advocates offered qualified praise for Murphy’s move, viewing it as a promising step that will provide state money for pre-K to needy districts that had not received such funding from Trenton before. But they also said more needs to be done if Murphy is to achieve his goal of universal preschool across New Jersey. “I was impressed with the Governor’s statement,” Cecilia Zalkind president and CEO of Advocates for Children of New Jersey said. “It will take a lot more than $83 million … but this was a significant first step.”
The first round of funding under PEEA, announced this past September, released $21 million reserved for 31 districts that already had established preschool programs and had received state pre-K aid before.
In 1998, the state Supreme Court ruled in the Abbott v. Burke school-funding case that high-standard preschool must be brought to the state’s neediest cities and towns. But over time, pre-K expansion has been a promise former governors have found difficult to keep.
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey in 2004 directed the state to launch a competitive grant program called the Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI), to expand access to preschool for four-year-olds.
Then, in 2008, the School Funding Reform Act mandated the expansion of high-quality preschool access to low-income children statewide. Under that law, 35 districts were provided access to pre-K and many more were promised help from Trenton.
But it took nearly a decade to even begin delivering on that promise. Then Republican Gov. Chris Christie approved $25 million for preschool expansion aid for the 2017-2018 school year during his final year in office.
Students in more than 100 New Jersey districts now have access to pre-K, but advocates say that number should be much higher, with tens of thousands of youngsters still waiting for access to pre-K.
An unfulfilled promise
“What we’re seeing now is a delayed implementation of a 2008 law,” said Sam Crane, a former state treasurer and current spokesperson for Pre-K Our Way, an organization that has campaigned for expanded preschool for years. “It’s not like New Jersey was starting this expansion with no experience in this area. They have experience with this.”
The amount of preschool aid is based on the number of low-income students in each district. The funding is being directed to districts that do not receive state aid for preschool and have more than 20 percent of their students receiving free or reduced lunch.
This round of funding will be used to set up or expand both half-day and full-day preschool programs and will give students what Murphy calls a “high-quality preschool” program — with class sizes of no more than 15 students, taught by a certified teacher and an aide, offering individualized programs for students with special needs, and a plan to transition half-day programs to full-day programs.
Concerns about collaboration and community programs
While advocates praised the new funding, they said there is still much more ground to cover.
One area of concern for Zalkind was the state’s investment in community programs that work with districts to provide necessary support services like childcare, classroom space and other resources.
In some of the neediest districts, facility space is limited and certified preschool teachers may be scarce. So, New Jersey’s preschool expansion grant makes use of what’s called a “mixed delivery system” which means districts that receive pre-K funding can access a combination of Head Start early childcare programming, private contracted providers, and school sites for their programs. Any contracts must adhere to templates approved by the Department of Education and must meet very strict state standards to ensure that young learners are getting adequate care and education.
Eatontown is one of the districts engaged in such a partnership with Acelero Learning, a state-approved provider in nearby Asbury Park which has six classrooms, qualified teachers and class sizes no larger than 15 students.
But Zalkind said not every district will be near a site like Acelero; some will need to contract with small community providers, some of which may not be quite up to snuff.
“Even if there is a district that is interested in partnering with a community program, that community program may not have had the support to be at the standard required,” Zalkind said, adding that her group wants state agencies to “work together and see if there’s a way to be more strategic about helping community programs be prepared to partner.”
With those requests in mind as well, Crane said preschool expansion is picking up speed and he predicts many more schools will be eager to apply for state funding and to create innovative solutions to the community partnership problem.
“The community is beginning to understand that this is a movement,” Crane said. “This is a reality now. It’s a high priority, people want to do it, and they understand the benefit of it. It all comes down to how quickly the money can follow.”
“From where we started, this is all good news,” Crane added.
*The districts originally listed by the DOE to receive funding included Boonton Township. The DOE has corrected the list to reflect the inclusion of Boonton Town, not Boonton Township and we have amended the list accordingly.