Expansion of New Jersey’s high-quality pre-K program is one of the strongest, surest investments we can make in our children. Right here in our home state, we have seen that students enrolled in high-quality preschool programs make significant gains in basic number concepts, vocabulary and print awareness. Across the country, students in pre-k programs are more likely to be ready for school at age 5, graduate high school, and hold steady, well-paying jobs by age 40. They are also less likely to drink, smoke, or be arrested for violent or drug-related crimes.
Beyond these reasons, early childhood investments could save New Jersey upwards of $850 million in costs down the road considering savings in grade repetition and special education services. New Jersey’s pre-K program is even nationally recognized for its excellence. In a recent study, New Jersey’s state-funded pre-K programs met almost all of the National Institute for Early Education Research’s benchmarks for quality, including meeting standards set for curriculum and professional development.
In our 2014 “Framework for Excellence” report, we interviewed over 70 education stakeholders across the state including superintendents, elected officials, teachers, parents and school leaders. Expanding access to high-quality preschool, particularly for low-income students, rose to the top five priorities for education experts we interviewed. Based on these conversations and what the research was showing, we knew that starting earlier with quality pre-K had to be an essential piece of our policy platform if we were serious about boosting student achievement and helping close the achievement gap.
In pursuit of this policy change, JerseyCAN has supported bills sponsored by Senator Teresa Ruiz that would help make the pre-K expansion vision a reality. We testified in favor of a bill that would expand preschool and make it available to the most at-risk students in 17 districts and another bill that would establish an early childhood innovation loan pilot program to spur private investment in early childhood education. Both of these initiatives passed through the Senate Education Committee and await action in the Assembly, and both are critical steps forward in ensuring more students have access to high-quality preschool.
As continued talks of school funding reform dominate budget negotiations, there is a real opportunity to advance a spending plan that supports what many researchers, teachers, parents, advocates and policymakers have known—investment in early childhood education works.
Another window for policy change is upon us as the school funding debate has intensified leading up to New Jersey’s July 1 budget deadline. For the past several years, both Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Prieto have publicly supported adding new funding to expand New Jersey’s high-quality preschool program to additional high-need districts. Currently, only 35 low-income communities have access to the state’s public preschool program. The Senate President has called for an additional $165 million in pre-K dollars, while the Assembly Speaker has led efforts calling for a bump of $110 million. In fact, last year, Democratic leadership included $25 million for pre-K, but it was ultimately vetoed out of the final budget.
As continued talks of school funding reform dominate budget negotiations, there is a real opportunity to advance a spending plan that supports what many researchers, teachers, parents, advocates and policymakers have known—investment in early childhood education works. While we remain hopeful that legislative leadership will include some pre-K expansion dollars in their budget proposal, the ultimate decision will be brought to the Governor’s desk for final approval. Until then, tens of thousands of children will be left waiting for us to open the door to high-quality preschool education.