Once seen as a struggle, support for pre-K now widespread

Report ranks NJ as leader in pre-kindergarten programs as group that pushed them says its job is done
Credit: (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
File photo: A pre-K teacher prepares in the era of COVID-19.

The path to universal public preschool has a storied history in New Jersey, from the court fights of two and three decades ago to the struggles over funding well into the early 2000s.

But as the state enters another budget cycle, any resistance has appeared to have clearly turned.

Even amid this COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s preschool program that started in the 31 neediest cities — complete with certified teachers, class size limits and two years of full-day instruction — is to grow to nearly 200 districts next year and more than 55,000 students.

According to a new national report, New Jersey has become a leader in the number of students enrolled and resources spent on them. The report from the Rutgers-based National Institute of Early Education Research (NIEER) said New Jersey is especially notable, as state-sponsored preschools nationwide have struggled in the last year in the face of the pandemic.

Outside of the report itself, advocates have been saying the same thing, that the perennial debates over the value of preschool have subsided and steady support has become the norm.

No longer a ‘political football’

“It hasn’t been a political football anymore,” said Sam Crane, the former state treasurer, who has led the privately funded Pre-K Our Way campaign to lobby for funding. “There is bipartisan consensus that this is the right thing to do” — so much so that Pre-K Our Way will shut its doors at the end of this fiscal year, Crane said. The campaign never envisioned going longer, he said, and after spending $4 million to $5 million in marketing and communications, its job is done.

“We’ve done our work and done it well,” Crane said in an interview with NJ Spotlight News Tuesday. “The return on that investment is what you need to look at.”

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That’s not to say the last year wasn’t a tough one for all of public education in New Jersey, and especially for its youngest children. Statewide, the overall enrollment in New Jersey public schools fell by more than 33,000 students, with more than 6,000 among preschool, the widest fall-off.

And New Jersey is still a far cry from truly universal preschool, as Gov. Phil Murphy two years ago pledged to have in place for 2022. But the state has continued to add funding for both existing preschool seats and expanded ones, including in Murphy’s latest state budget plan for the 2022 fiscal year, and districts continue to add themselves to the list.

“Even in the height of the pandemic, districts have seen the value in it,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, who has pressed the state on preschool provision for decades.

Challenges during pandemic

“There were certainly challenges [during the pandemic] in providing remote instruction at that age and families’ hesitation, but seeing so many districts interested is really positive.”

But nationally the picture was lukewarm at best, if not a little worrying, said the NIEER report’s authors. Preschool in New Jersey, however, has continued to grow, testament to the support both from Murphy and the Legislature.

Tammy Murphy, the state’s first lady, joined the report’s announcement and reiterated the Murphy administration’s commitment. The governor has added $50 million in funding in his proposed fiscal year 2022 budget, half for existing seats and half for new ones, bringing the total to more than $924 million.

“We know we can’t wait until kindergarten to start a child’s education,” Tammy Murphy said in the virtual press conference announcing the NIEER report. “Despite the unprecedented fiscal challenges COVID posed to New Jersey, growing the state’s preschool programs continues to be at the forefront of our minds.”

More federal funding?

That’s not to say that advocates aren’t pressing for more in upcoming budget talks, and community-based child care in all the early years has become a new focus for funding. The Biden administration is composing a major relief bill for states that is also expected to include funding  for both child care and preschool.

But even the diehard said it’s hard to argue with the steady increases.

“I think New Jersey has done a really good job at expanding at a good pace,” said Crane, of the Pre-K Our Way campaign. “Some want it a little slower, some want it a little faster, but the pace has been really good.”

And now planning to end the campaign after five years, Crane said the last few years and especially the pandemic have highlighted the value of preschool.

“I think the public has come to realize how really important early education and child care are,” he said, “not just for the child but also the families … I think it’s more valued now than it was five years ago.”

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