ACNJ Testimony on Preschool and New Jersey’s School Funding Formula

Posted on January 26, 2017

To: Assemblywoman Carride, Chairwoman, and Members
Assembly Education Committee

From: Cecilia Zalkind, President
Advocates for Children of New Jersey

Date:  January 18, 2017

RE: Preschool and New Jersey’s School Funding Formula

Since 1999, New Jersey has provided high-quality preschool to children in communities with the highest percentage of low-income children. This nationally recognized preschool program has helped ensure that thousands of young children are ready for school. Through its high-quality mixed delivery system of public preschool, Head Start and child-care provider classrooms, children attain the skills necessary to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

Our state’s high quality preschool standards, which include small class size, well prepared teachers and the implementation of a research-based curriculum provide participating children the best opportunity to begin school on a level playing field with those children whose families can provide such a quality learning experience. It also leverages New Jersey’s significant investment in K-12 education in maximizing student success by strengthening children’s readiness skills.

The program includes both three- and four-year olds, ensuring two years of a high-quality experience, which data indicates makes a difference in preparing children for school. And the benefits are clear. A longitudinal study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has shown that participating children continue to perform exponentially better in language arts, literacy, math and science, impacting both their short- and long-term educational success.

In 2008, the NJ Legislature acknowledged the importance of this successful program by including it as an important provision of the 2008 School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). This law called for preschool to be expanded to thousands of additional three- and four-year old children in low-income communities, who did not have access to quality preschool because of where they lived. Noting that almost one-half half of children from low-income families lived outside school districts providing state-funded preschool, the SFRA promised to provide all preschoolers living in the next tier of low-income communities with the same quality program being provided to children in our lowest income districts. All other school districts were targeted to receive per pupil funding to provide preschool to their children from low-income families.

High-quality preschool was a key priority of SFRA, and with good reason. It was one of the few areas of the bill that had strong support amongst all of the stakeholders, and data to show that children were benefiting long-term. It was a win-win decision, both for our most vulnerable children who lacked access to quality preschool, and for our state. It was a sound investment in a program with a winning track record.

Unfortunately, NJ has not kept its promise to our youngest citizens. The preschool expansion promised in the SFRA was never funded, denying children the opportunity to start school with a strong foundation. While there is near universal support for high-quality preschool, fiscal constraints over the last several years have continued to move preschool further down our state’s list of funding priorities. Except for four districts that received preschool funding soon after the formula became law and recent federal support, our national model continues to remain out of reach for thousands of three- and four-year olds in our state whose families and their local school districts cannot pay for such quality.

Consequently, thousands of children have missed out on their opportunity for starting school with a greater chance of educational success because of preschool. On the first day of kindergarten, no child should have two strikes against them because their parents or the community in which they live couldn’t afford to provide a quality preschool or because they were not lucky enough to live within a zip code in which funding for preschool was available.

This low priority is now impacting our existing state-funded preschools. During the last few years, existing programs have significantly felt the pinch of flat or near-flat funding. Current funding does not even begin to cover the rising costs that school districts face to provide quality early education for young learners. Whether it is reducing support staff, supplies and technology, maintaining teachers or doing away with field trips, in the end, New Jersey’s state-funded preschools are struggling and it is the children who are most affected.

The erosion of funding to existing programs and the lack of promised funding for expansion puts our nationally recognized preschool model, one of New Jersey’s most successful educational reform initiatives, at risk. However, this is a problem that can be solved. Ensuring that young children have or continue to have access to quality preschool experiences must become a higher funding priority in our state. It is already the law. What is needed now is real commitment to our children’s educational success.