A Curious Proposal to Privatize New Jersey’s Already Privatized Pre-K

Topic: Economics, Preschool, State-funded programs

The recent New Jersey Privatization Task Force recommendations on pre-K disregard the facts and oppose the best interests of New Jersey’s children. The report highlights pre-K as an example of “successful” privatization, but then calls for the state to replace this successful private-public educational partnership with low-quality child care. This plan is taken straight from the playbook of former Governor Whitman who first tried to substitute cheap child care for education and failed. The plan was firmly rejected by New Jersey’s State Supreme Court then. Governor Christie and the legislature should reject it now, as well. How the Privatization Task Force ended up recommending the destruction of one of the state’s best known privatization successes is worth exploring in some detail.

The rationale given by the task force for replacing preschool education with a child care voucher is to save on the costs of building new facilities. See link at: http://www.state.nj.us/governor/news/reports/2010/approved/reports_archive.html That argument doesn’t hold water. Facilities account for only about 10 percent of the overall cost. If the state saved big on facilities, say 20 percent, it still would only save two percent on total cost. Besides, most of the pre-K classrooms New Jersey needs have already been built, and as we already noted preschool is largely privatized so most facilities are private. When new facilities are needed, the state ends up paying for facilities one way or another whether it’s through public construction or payments to private providers who must pay their rent or mortgages.

Even when new facilities are built, cost is nowhere near the $43,000 to $53,000 per seat stated by the report. They start with an exaggerated baseline figure for cost per classroom and then divide by 10 to arrive at cost per seat. Since there are 15 children per classroom, they should have divided by 15, a number that is 50 percent higher, and which will result in a much lower per-pupil building cost. There are New Jersey preschoolers who do need new facilities. Many of them are in temporary trailers that are long due for replacement with real classrooms. Put it all together and the state might save a fraction of one percent of the annual cost of pre-K on facilities.

The way the task force report misrepresents the pre-K program and its history suggests that this report is not really trying to save money on facilities. What it seeks to do is return to the lower standards and inadequate funding provided under child care regulations. To build this case, the task force stacks up one falsehood after another. This faulty case begins with the report’s claim that school districts require all 4-year-olds to enroll in district run programs. This is flatly untrue. Public pre-K in New Jersey is entirely voluntary, and even children in public pre-K are mostly served by privately owned and operated programs. Another false assertion is that 100 percent of children were served by private providers prior to the state’s new pre-K program. The truth is that many children were served by no preschool program, public or private, while the public schools served 30 percent and Head Start served more than 20 percent. Today it is likely that the number of New Jersey’s children served by private pre-K providers is actually higher than it was before the state’s pre-K program because state funding has increased the number of children served and most of those served attend private programs. More importantly, these children now receive from private providers a good education that has demonstrated results. Private providers get these results because they are now adequately funded and receive support from the public schools.

The task force also falsely asserts that there is no documented benefit to the state-funded pre-K program compared to less expensive child care, a claim that Dick Zimmer (the task force chair) continues to make. The truth is that the poor quality of the private programs children attended and their lack of learning are well documented, and the transformation of private providers into high-quality educational programs as a result of higher standards and adequate funding is equally well documented.

The state and local school districts have supported private providers in raising their quality. The state put into place a system for continuous quality improvement under which the quality of education in private providers rose dramatically. The public school role includes providing teacher coaches who work with teachers in the private providers to improve their practice. Progress is regularly assessed based on children’s test scores, as well. Public schools also support the education of children with special needs and other difficulties who were not adequately served in private programs previously. Private provider preschools in the state pre-K program are now overwhelmingly good to excellent.

In sum, private providers have prospered in the state’s preschool program. Local boards of education retain local responsibility for ensuring the quality of education for children in their communities and for ensuring that programs are financially well-managed and deliver a good education. In carrying out these responsibilities only a few of the smaller school districts have chosen to provide pre-K through the public schools alone. In most, if not all of these districts, the number of classrooms is so small that it makes more financial sense to provide them directly than to contract out.

For those concerned about saving the state money on the costs of facilities, there are a host of remedies that could be considered, public and private. In the child care business it is common to separate the provision of the program from the construction, maintenance, and ownership of the facilities. Many child care providers rent rather than own their facilities. Privatization of facilities construction might make sense even for public schools. The National Institute for Early Education Research has an entire report on creative solutions for facilities finance.

However, what the task force proposed under the guise of privatization is substituting child care and its regulations for preschool education. A more wasteful recommendation is hard to imagine. The state has invested substantial funding and hard work over the past 10 years to build a public-private partnership that provides high-quality preschool education. This transformation has been documented by data collected annually and is heralded nationally.

Rigorous research demonstrates that New Jersey’s state-funded high-quality pre-K programs improve children’s school readiness and raise test scores in the early grades. Children who attend state-funded pre-K starting at age 3 are half as likely to fail and repeat a grade. Pre-K starts these children on a path to higher achievement, increased graduation rates, and less delinquency and crime. This would not happen under weak child care regulations with inadequate funding and no support from the public schools. Research shows that the kind of cheap voucherized child care the Task Force proposes actually harms the development of children cognitively, socially, and emotionally. What the Privatization Task Force proposes would be a disaster for New Jersey’s children today and a disaster for New Jersey’s taxpayers in the future.

We are all in favor of eliminating waste and increasing efficiency. If the state wants to save money on pre-K without harming New Jersey’s children, we believe it could save $100 million a year with simple research-based changes that would not reduce effectiveness. With a little hard work subjecting questionable practices to rigorous evaluation the state could save substantial dollars based on fact, not fiction. These dollars could be used to raise child care standards and reimbursement rates throughout the state and to expand effective pre-K to even more children. That may not have the same ideological appeal as the quick fix of vouchers and lower standards, but most of us learned as preschoolers that only in fairy tales does trading the cow for a handful of magic beans end well.

Ellen Frede and Steve Barnett
Co-Directors, NIEER

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