Another State Budget that Shortchanges Young Children
The FY 2018 state budget, announced last month by Governor Christie, includes no increases for early education programs. True, it doesn’t cut our high-quality public preschool program, but for the eighth year in a row, it does not advance early education either.
A lot has happened in the last eight years. The more than 35,000 3- and 4-year-old children in the 90 or so school districts promised preschool beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, are about to enter seventh grade. Multiply that by eight years. Hundreds of thousands of kids have missed out on a strong start with the foundation of preschool. Who knows what opportunities these children may have lost?
Failing to expand state-funded preschool is not the state’s only shortcoming. Child care subsidies, which help low-income families work, have not increased since 2008. Child care programs are struggling to cover the cost of doing business in 2017 when they are being reimbursed with the same 2008 rate. It has made child care less affordable and accessible for families. Programs are forced to reduce services or charge struggling families more just to cover their costs. Some families literally cannot afford to work.
It also affects program quality. When child care programs cannot afford to pay staff adequately, experienced teachers leave for better paying jobs. Frequent turnover is not good for children who need stability to thrive.
It is ironic that while the state is committed to developing a child care quality rating and improvement system, it will not address the increased funding necessary to sustain programs. Funding for quality improvement through Grow NJ Kids is available for one-time needs. It does not include any increase to maintain quality once it is improved.
In April, ACNJ will release a report on the cost of child care quality, followed by another report about the availability of child care for infants. Both raise some urgent and compelling questions about who is caring for our babies.
As an advocate, it is hard to see another year go by without an investment in the healthy growth and development of our state’s youngest citizens. It is discouraging to see other states make critical investments in preschool and child care, and wonder, why not New Jersey? It is no longer possible to claim success just because early care and education programs are not cut or eligibility is not reduced. Flat funding is beginning to erode these programs.
We need to call attention to these issues as the legislature begins to debate the FY 2018 state budget. Pre-K Our Way is launching a new campaign calling for preschool expansion that will remind legislators about the children who continue to wait for preschool. The discussion of a new school funding formula is another opportunity to stress the importance of a strong start for future education success. And legislators must be reminded – again – that child care programs need adequate funding to provide accessible, affordable, quality care so that parents can work and young children can develop.
Our state’s budget woes continue. Money is short and obligations, like the pension funds, take a big chunk of the budget. But the budget needs to be about more than immediate needs. It must be balanced with investments for the future too. And investing in children is one of the best steps we can take. The rate of return is great however it is measured.