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Pre-K Murphy’s Way: Educators Sound Off On Governor’s Spending Plan

March 15, 2018
John Mooney
NJ Spotlight

The date was mostly coincidental, but the scheduling of yesterday’s celebration of New Jersey’s famed court-ordered preschool couldn’t have been timelier.

The daylong conference at ETS’s campus in Princeton was ostensibly to mark the 20th anniversary of the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke ruling in 1998, which brought high-standard preschool to the state’s neediest cities and towns.

But it also happened to fall a day after Gov. Phil Murphy presented a state budget that saw the first sizable increase in New Jersey’s investment in preschool in nearly a decade, along with the pledge to extend it statewide within four years.

“We’ve never had a governor say that,” said Sam Crane, the former state treasurer who has been leading the high-profile PreK Our Way campaign for expanded preschool for close to two years. “That’s as good as it gets.”

Yet as much as yesterday’s conference was a lovefest for the merits and benefits of preschool in New Jersey, it also illustrated the many questions going forward in Murphy’s vision of what he said will be “universal” preschool for all New Jersey children.

First, there will need to be some clarification on exactly what Murphy intends, somewhat of a moving target until the budget is approved and guidance is put forward to districts.

Murphy has proposed adding $57 million to the $688 million now spent by the state on preschool aimed at low-income students and communities. Of that, $32.5 million would go to existing programs in the 31 Abbott districts — from Newark and Jersey City to Vineland and Millville — along with a handful of others that started in the late 2000s.

An additional $25 million would go toward further expanding the program to continue to reach another 100-plus districts that would qualify due to higher concentrations of poverty. The Democratic-led Legislature this year had already added $25 million toward the cause, and Murphy’s investment would bring that to $50 million for next year.

That alone is a big stride, many said yesterday, adding praise to how Murphy combined both expansion of new programs and support of existing ones.

“That is definitely moving in the right direction,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which led the Abbott litigation. “And I might say it was very smart to not just fund expansion but also deal with the chronic underfunding of existing programs.”

… The overall cost of full expansion will ultimately reach the hundreds of millions — exponentially more than what Murphy proposed yesterday — but few would dismiss it as a pipe dream any longer. One pointed to what New York City accomplished four years ago, adding 50,000 children to the preschool rolls in just two years.

“I would have said it was unrealistic until Mayor de Blasio,” said Steve Barnett, another advocate in the state as director of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.