They are the primary caregivers of New Jersey's public preschool program in its poorest cities, hundreds of private centers that serve on the public's behalf -- and dollars -- to educate tens of thousands of preschoolers in cities like Camden, Newark and Elizabeth.
Under the programs first ordered more than a decade ago by the Abbott v. Burke school equity case, more than 60 percent of the 44,000 Abbott preschoolers are in private centers under contract with their districts.
But this so-called "mixed delivery" system is facing some strains, as some of the state's funding has shifted and left the programs worried if they can provide the services once envisioned.
The roots of the concern date back a few years, to the administration of former Gov. Jon Corzine, when the state's Department of Human Services (DHS) rewrote the rules for what levels of income would qualify families for programs before and after school and for summer programs that are an inherent part of the centers.
That funding for the "wraparound" services was mixed, with the state Department of Education funding the centers through a complicated formula that left the DOE paying about three-quarters of the overall costs of a 10-hour day and the DHS paying the balance.
But as new eligibility requirements were phased in over the past several years -- they are in full effect this year -- officials and advocates said centers are seeing far fewer students in their classrooms qualifying for the wraparound money, depriving students of programs and costing centers funds they can't make up elsewhere.
"It's been building for the last two years," said Ray Ocasio, executive director of La Casa de Don Pedro Inc. in Newark, the community services organization that serves about 350 Newark preschoolers and saw about half of its $1 million in DHS money cut.
"We have been able to cover it for a little while, but it is clearly not sustainable," Ocasio continued.
As many as a third of his students no longer qualify for the wraparound money, leaving Ocasio to cut back summer programs last year by a third and likely further reducing them this year. He did not rule out eliminating them altogether next summer.
In Elizabeth, the Egenolf Early Childhood Center has lost half of its $235,000 in wraparound money, and has just 30 of its 150 students in aftercare, down from 90 in the past.
"It's pretty serious," said Lorraine Cooke, the center's director. "And you have to think about what has happened to these kids [no longer in after school]. We have kids going home to be looked after by other kids."
Cooke, vice president of the New Jersey Association for the Education of Young Children, testified about the cuts before the Senate budget committee last week.
"It's happening around the state," added Cynthia Rice, a policy analyst with the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "It's a hand-in-hand program [between the DOE and DHS], and when one hand moves back, it is hard to sustain."
A series of meetings took place this winter with the DOE, the DHS, and the private centers, as well as their home districts, to come up with potential remedies. A DHS spokeswoman yesterday said the eligibility changes were meant to bring them in line with other state programs and spread the funding to programs outside the Abbott districts as well.
"The changes to the criteria bring the wraparound program in alignment with our other childcare subsidy program, NJ Cares for Kids, and creates equity in the eligibility criteria and benefits among the childcare programs," said Nicole Brossoie, the DHS spokeswoman.
"Previously, someone who lived in an Abbott district had access to free childcare, at a higher income, while in a non-Abbott district there was an income threshold."
Still, she and other state officials said they loosened some of the restrictions this year on how the different funding streams are to be spent, for instance, allowing DOE funding to be applied to administrative and other costs previously off limits.
Separately, Gov. Chris Christie also has proposed a $14.5 million increase in preschool funds for next year to address rising enrollments and inflation, bringing the total to $633.7 million next year for 45,000 students. But officials acknowledge it remains far short of making up the money lost with DHS's eligibility changes.
"All this should at least allow them to spread the money around a little better, but unless someone has a plan for creating new money, it is going to be hard to get everyone where they want," acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf said yesterday.
In individual districts, there have been some stopgap measures as well. The Newark Public Schools will provide an undisclosed amount of money to help local providers through the year, officials announced this week. Ocasio said it may be as much as $3.8 million, but that could not be confirmed with the district.
"That takes some pressure off," Ocasio said yesterday. "But all of these things are still just a Band-Aid for this year. We still have a big challenge, and this budget cycle is critical. Without it, there are real reservations going into next year."
Cooke of the Egenolf center in Elizabeth said this summer would be telling. She said just 30 students have signed up for programs, when she would usually have 180.
"For someone like ourselves that has been around since 1890, we have an endowment we can use," she said. "But for newer centers, they don't have that. I hear some are taking out bridge loans to survive."