Universal pre-K takes another step on long road

Murphy says process started to get long-sought programs running
Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Sept. 16, 2021: At Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center, Palisades Park. Gov. Phil Murphy announces a new process for the expansion of preschool in New Jersey.

Gov. Phil Murphy first proposed universal preschool for New Jersey when he was running for office in 2016, and he has raised the idea at every opportunity since.

In 2018, he went so far as to say the goal would be met by 2022, the end of his current term in office.

“This budget starts New Jersey down a four-year path to expanding pre-K statewide,” Murphy said at his fiscal 2019 budget address.

Now, as Murphy revs up his campaign for reelection to a second term, it looks like expanding pre-K will take a bit longer than that. And if it happens — and there is certainly no guarantee it will — Murphy will be long out of office.

On Thursday, Murphy used the backdrop of a Palisades Park early childhood center to again make the pledge for New Jersey to join the ranks of a half-dozen states that now provide some form of universal preschool. But this time, he put some more realistic markers on it.

Murphy said the process would start with a “strategic plan” over the next year that would set a path to full-day preschool being made available to all 3- and 4-year-olds by the end of the decade.

“It would be 2030 the latest,” he said. “I hope sooner that that … Resources will be what we need to get our arms around.”

At least $1 billion more

And indeed, the cost would be steep. In more than doubling the number of students now in state-supported preschool, Murphy said the price tag would be in the area of at least another $1 billion a year, on top of the $900 million now spent.

In total, “it would be an estimate between $1.8 and $2.2 billion,” he said to a reporter’s question.

It’s an ambitious goal, to say the least, and if reached, it would culminate a decades-long crusade that started with a state Supreme Court order under the Abbott v. Burke litigation that high-quality preschool be provided in 30 of the state’s neediest districts.

And the timing with a reelection campaign is obvious, although preschool has become a bit of a bipartisan cause of late and is hardly expected to be a big topic in the governor’s race. It also comes as President Biden has made universal preschool a central plank in his $3 trillion infrastructure plan, opening the possibility for significant federal dollars, as well.

Murphy’s GOP challenger Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign released a statement on Thursday saying that he supports expanded preschool, although with some mild caveats and short of an endorsement of a universal program.

“Jack has always been a supporter of expanded pre-k. He believes universal pre-k is best delivered directly by Department of Children and Families licensed community for-profit/not-for-profit childcare center providers, or in public-private partnership with the education community,” the statement read.

“Jack’s policy is centered around parents being able to make the best decisions for their children’s education and ensuring that preschoolers with the greatest need are taken care of.”

Various governors have sought to expand preschool beyond the so-called Abbott districts, with Murphy the most successful in his first four years, now reaching 140 districts and a total of 55,000 students. The Palisades Park center highlighted on Thursday is among the latest 19 districts receiving close to $890,000 in state money for its program.

But to take it statewide is another matter entirely, and a host of questions are still to be answered as the state Department of Education devises its plan. Few details were provided on Thursday on how that process would take place.

What would universal preschool look like?

A fundamental question will be to define exactly what universal preschool would entail. Under the Abbott order, the mandated preschool now in place is quite prescriptive: full-day for both 3- and 4-year-olds, class sizes mostly limited to 15 children, certified teachers and accredited staff, and high-level standards of instruction and other programming.

When asked whether his vision would follow those same mandates, Murphy said that would be the intention, but specifics would be left to the strategic planning ahead. He did say it would be similar to standards now in place for K-12 education, although none of them go so far as class size limits.

Questions also abound over how the rollout would take place, including whether it would prioritize districts with the greatest socioeconomic needs and how it would include existing private child care centers.

Nevertheless, advocates on hand for the announcement were supportive of Murphy taking the next step, while also pointing out where the priorities should lie.

“It sounds ambitious, but it’s a plan to move forward in a very systematic way,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

“Top of the list for us is how it is delivered,” she continued. “If you look at the expansion districts, there has not been much partnering going on with the community programs. To us, that is an essential part of a high-quality model.”

There has also been a growing concern for the need to serve even younger children, between birth and age 3. State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), the influential chair of the Senate education committee, has been a loud cheerleader for expanding preschool and attended Thursday’s announcement.

She raised a host of issues, from the school facility needs in many districts to the lack of effective programs for the youngest children and their families.

“If we are not taking care of the mother and the child in the womb and the infant that comes out,” she said. “If we are not resourcing those areas with high-quality day centers, when that child goes into a three-year-old [preschool] program, they are already far behind.”

Education group backs Murphy

One prominent group critical of the Murphy administration’s slow pace on several other education measures was on board with the announcement Thursday.

“We couldn’t be more proud of New Jersey’s high quality Abbott preschool program, which is the basis for Governor Murphy’s commitment to universal preschool announced today,” read a statement from David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“It’s only right that our state’s program, which is a national model, be expanded to reach every eligible 3- and 4-year-old child,” the statement read. “We stand ready to support the Governor’s promise, including ensuring that the rollout prioritizes children and communities that will benefit most.”

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