Testimony on Public PreK Mixed-Delivery Model: Barriers to Collaboration and Fractures in the Current System

Posted on June 6, 2024


TO: Members of the Senate Education Committee

FROM: Winifred Smith-Jenkins, Director of Early Learning Policy and Advocacy, Advocates for Children of New Jersey

DATE: June 3, 2024

RE: New Jersey's Public Preschool Mixed-Delivery Model

Thank you so much for holding this hearing on mixed delivery and for allowing me the opportunity to speak today. My name is Winifred Smith-Jenkins, and I am the Director of Early Learning for Policy and Advocacy at ACNJ.

Before working at ACNJ, I spent twenty years as a child care director for our family-owned small businesses. Last year, I transitioned to advocacy because I believe our child care system is on the verge of collapse. Please understand that along with ACNJ, I personally fully support the expansion of public preschool, but collectively, we acknowledge that it has had some unintended negative consequences on child care centers and the supply of infant and toddler care within our state. It is my hope that by working together, we can make the necessary corrections.

Therefore, my role in today’s hearing is to highlight seven recommendations broken into two sections: barriers to collaboration and fractures in the current system.

Starting with the barrier to collaboration

Recommendation 1: Align the Department of Education’s square footage requirements for community providers, which is currently 63.3 sq feet per child, with the Department of Children and Families' Office of Licensing guidelines of 35 sq. feet per child like most of the United States. It is important to note, that this misalignment only occurs in NJ and New Hampshire.

More than 62% of NJ providers cannot meet the DOE sq. footage requirement.

Of the nearly
20,000 students in public preK, only 17%, are in provider sites.

According to a recent report, more than 62% of NJ providers cannot meet the DOE sq. footage requirement, which means many providers cannot collaborate with their local school districts, thus risking the sustainability of their businesses as well as the availability of infant and toddler care throughout our state. In Fall 2022, of the nearly 20,000 preschool students in districts funded through PreK Expansion, only 3,300, or 17%, are in private providers or Head Start classrooms.

As it stands now, in order for a community provider who is already educating students 3- and 4-year-olds to participate in the public preschool program, they would need to combine two classrooms into one, thus further limiting child care availability or find additional space and undergo the lengthy, expensive, and daunting child care licensing process before being able to collaborate. As a result, many of these community providers currently working with 3- and 4-year-olds are likely to lose this group of students to public preschool programs and, just as likely, within a couple of years, their businesses. After all, providers cannot operate a center with only infants and toddlers, and parents will eventually stop paying for preschool if they can get it for free. 

While the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) developed national quality standards for publicly funded preschool programs and the Department of Human Services (DHS) developed quality standards for child care centers in New Jersey, neither entity based its standards on classroom square footage. This DCF alignment will immediately allow more providers to participate in the public preschool program while saving small businesses and the limited supply of infant and toddler care currently available within our state.

Recommendation 2: Form a stakeholder group composed of child care and Head Start providers participating and not participating in the public preschool program, representatives from NIEER, NJAEYC, the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Human Services, advocates, and school districts to work with the DOE to modernize the provider contract. This will help remove barriers to collaboration, reduce administrative burdens, and fix funding formulas that disincentivize retaining infant and toddler programs within community provider sites.

Recommendation 3: Establish legislation that treats child care providers collaborating with public schools as a protected vendor class in school contracts, allowing multi-year contracts to secure funding for facility upgrades and new program start-up costs. The current one-year contract makes it nearly impossible for community providers to secure bank loans to cover the long-term financial investments needed for collaboration with the school district. Additionally, it offers no assurance that the collaboration will continue beyond the current school year, creating an imbalanced power dynamic between the school district and the provider.

Next, let's address the fractures in the current system, focusing on workforce, enrollment, funding, and pay parity.

Recommendation #1 Workforce: Provide financial support and time for non-certified public preschool teachers to return to school and become degreed teachers. This includes funding for books, child care, transportation, and remedial courses, with pay increases as milestones are met similar to what we did during the early days of Abbott. In December 2023, we surveyed Abbott providers across our state, and 96 providers responded. Of those, 65% stated that they currently have substitute teachers in the classroom due to the challenges of finding certified teachers. A copy of that survey has been included in your packet today.  Abbott districts are now losing their certified teachers, putting the achievement gap we worked so hard to close over the last 25 years in jeopardy of resurfacing. It is imperative that we do everything possible to support our current workforce while also working to build a pipeline for the future.

Recommendation #2 Enrollment: Launch a statewide public awareness campaign about public preschool and work with districts to reduce barriers to school enrollment. Ensure a fair distribution of student enrollment across in-district and provider sites. Reject proposals to open new preschool classrooms if provider sites are not fully enrolled. One provider surveyed in December stated, “The school district continues to open up in-district preschool classes and poach our parents to register with them instead of collaborating.” Moveover, we have heard similar comments from many other providers indicating to us the significance of this problem. We have also heard about school districts only allowing providers to educate three-year-olds as opposed to students ages three and four years old. This means yearly providers must recruit their full number of contracted slots while the district capitalizes on the community providers’ student population, limiting their recruitment needs and unduly penalizing providers.  This is just one example of an unfair power dynamic that hurts partnerships. 

Recommendation #3 Funding: Ensure that districts fully fund participating child care providers for all of their contracted slots. Currently, school districts are fully funded for their total reported enrollment but penalize community providers who are under-enrolled. When providers meet with the district’s fiscal specialist to create their budget for the upcoming year, they should review the number of contracted slots to determine if the allocation is appropriate. Once agreed upon, the contracted amount should be maintained without any cuts during the year.

Recommendation #4 Pay Parity: Clearly define and require pay parity between district teachers and teachers at provider sites. Again, according to our December survey, 6 out of 10 programs have lost P-3 certified teachers to the district.  Providers have reported salary differences ranging from $15,000 to $25,000. Addressing this issue is essential for ensuring quality and equity across the preschool program.

In conclusion, mixed delivery is vital to the sustainability of New Jersey’s child care system. By addressing these issues, we can ensure that all children have access to high-quality early education. With the support of the Legislature, we can solve these problems, protect community child care centers, and strengthen NJ’s mixed delivery system. Thank you for your time and consideration. I am happy to answer any questions, and my written testimony provides additional details about each outlined recommendation and my contact information.