Gov. Jon Corzine wants to dramatically expand preschool programs statewide, today’s Star-Ledger reports.
The plan, the Ledger says, includes a proposal to require and ultimately pay for full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in at least 100 low- and middle-income districts not currently providing it. The idea is expected to be unveiled in detail next week, when Corzine also spells out his new state funding plan for schools.
But even as school administrators embrace the idea of getting kids into schools as early as age 3, some say they can’t handle what Corzine’s proposing.
“We see the difference, a significant difference,” said Red Bank Superintendent Laura Morana, who currently runs a full-day program for 4-year-olds. “But my first reaction is, ‘Oh my gosh, full-day for 3-year-olds, too?’ … I don’t have the space for half-day, let alone full-day.”
“Preliminary estimates provided by the state indicate the program could enroll an additional 17,000 children within six years, at a cost to the state of $320 million,” the Ledger says.
Corzine’s proposal amounts to a major expansion of a program already at work in the 30 poorest urban districts.
“This is the single best step we can take to address the needs of at-risk children in their future schooling,” state Education Commissioner Lucille Davy said yesterday.
Child advocates who have long lobbied for such a plan praised the governor’s initiative.
“The evidence is clear: Preschool works,” said Cecilia Zalkind, director of the Association for Children of New jersey. “We are very excited to see this in the funding formula.”
The proposal expands on a model in the state’s 31 poorest districts, ordered by the state Supreme Court in 1998 in Abbott vs. Burke.
Under Abbott, about 41,000 students, approximately 75 percent of the eligible children in those districts, attend preschool. In addition, the state’s early childhood grants fund half-day programs for another 7,000 4-year-olds in 101 non-Abbott districts.
Preliminary estimates provided by the state show that the new program would increase the overall number within six years to about 65,000 children at a cost of $850 million, or roughly $13,000 per child.
Phased in over time, the proposal would specifically require all districts in the lowest socio-economic categories to match the Abbott programs, encompassing about 70 districts from Atlantic City to Fairview in Bergen County.
In addition, any other districts with at least 40 percent of their students qualifying for free or reduced-cost lunch programs — a commonly used indicator of poverty — also would be required to create the two-year full-day programs.
Red Bank would be among those facing the new mandates, and Morana said there is no question that the 4-year-olds currently enrolled have made an easier transition into elementary schools, particularly immigrant children gaining a quicker mastery of English.