Pre-K funding leads as hot topic in gubernatorial race

Advocates for Children of New Jersey‘s CEO and Executive Director Cecilia Zalkind sent questionnaires to New Jersey’s candidates for governor asking how they’d handle preschool expansion, among other issues.

“The exciting thing to me is that they’re all committed to preschool,” said Zalkind.

Pre-K’s a hot topic in the current race, and everybody answering the questionnaire wants more preschool.

“I think they have different approaches as to how it’s going to be funded,” she said.

Currently, 40,000 kids attend publicly-funded preschool in 35 districts, and a recent $25 million appropriation will extend pre-K programs to at least 19 more districts this year. It’s not cheap. So, Zalkind applauded Democrat Phil Murphy’s statement to “support the expansion of pre-K statewide, and work to move toward universal access.”

But the price tag for that is a whopping $600 to $700 million, and Murphy himself admits it’s a heavy lift.

“I’ll go back to universal pre-K. That is absolutely our aspiration,” said Murphy. “I don’t think you can get there overnight, though. I think you have to phase it in over some number of years.”

“While I understand there needs to be a phase-in, I hope it’s at the top of his list and done in a way that expedites it,” said Zalkind.

Republican Kim Guadagno’s statement focuses on funding, calling for forced audits of all school districts. “We could reinvest those savings in education, including preschool,” Guadagno wrote in a statement, but added, “At the very least, pre-K should be means tested.”

Zalkind disagrees.

“For low-income children, it’s an issue of access,” she said. “Their families do not have the means to do that. But even for middle-income families, being able to afford a high-quality preschool program can be out of reach for many families. So yes, if I had my wish list, I would want universal preschool.”

Guadagno didn’t reply to NJTV’s request for comment, but on the campaign trail, she has tweaked Murphy about how he’ll pay for just about everything.

“Phil Murphy, in short, is the tax man,” said Guadagno in August. “It’s really that simple. He has promised $75 billion in increased expenditures, whether it’s fully funding pre-K, fully funding the school funding formula, which is K through 12, free college education, fully funding the pensions, fully funding health care, a state bank of New Jersey, any of those.”

The third candidate to reply, Green Party Candidate Seth Kaper-Dale, said he would also fully fund preschool.

“Preschool is the foundation upon which a child’s brain develops in ways that makes her ready for a lifetime of learning,” said Kaper-Dale.

“For years, we know there’s been support for preschool in the state. But not to the level where it’s become the highest priority for policy makers,” said Zalkind. “There’s now a lot more experience at the local level, where districts that have high quality preschool are seeing the impact, later on.”

In fact, lawmakers in 2008 approved pre-K expansion throughout New Jersey — but the state’s never fully funded it. But, elections can change the political calculus. New York just approved universal pre-K. The question: can New Jersey afford not to follow?