The possibility of nearly $150 million in new aid for New Jersey schools may be stealing the political spotlight right now, but there’s another school item in the fiscal 2018 budget debates that could have bigger consequences.
A central part of the Democratic package put forward last week was $25 million in aid for the expansion of public preschool for thousands of low-income students, potentially paying for another 2,500 children to enroll in the full-day program. If approved, it would be the first significant expansion in nearly a decade.
Both state Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto have long pressed to expand the state’s program, now covering more than 40,000 students in 34 districts.
This year may prove their best shot yet, as Democrats have called full-day pre-K a required piece in their overall package, and it appears to have widespread support — at least so far.
Credit also goes to a two-year-old — and well-financed — public-service campaign by the group Pre-K Our Way, a business-led coalition that has trained its focus and dollars on this election year.
Now that the hard-core negotiations are underway, preschool expansion appears to be still on the table and a bargaining chip in the ongoing talks between the Democrats and Gov. Chris Christie’s office.
“Everyone told us when we started this that it would be impossible,” said Samuel Crane, a former state treasurer who is directing the Pre-K Our Way campaign. “Now, we’re in the middle of the biggest budget discussions in the state.”
That hardly makes it a done deal, as Christie has not supported previous requests to expand the programs. He has at least twice vetoed additional funds from the budget. At the same time, he has yet to cut the program, and Democrats are hopeful he will go along this year.
Still, this year may just be a run-up to the next governor, anyway, with frontrunner Phil Murphy having gone so far as to say he would ultimately support universal preschool.
Pre-K Our Way and advocates have sought to start with at least the communities with high concentrations of poverty, ones initially covered under a 2008 law but never added. That would be roughly another 100 districts, ultimately costing as much as $500 million more.
“This is a first step for us, absolutely,” said Crane. “It would propel us into the next administration with a bipartisan agreement for expanded preschool.”
Others are also heartened by the prospects.
“This would be a great first step to the preschool expansion promised nine years ago,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
“We know that New Jersey’s preschool has a track record of success in preparing children for school,” she said, “and with this funding, more kids can benefit.”