Thirty-one school districts in New Jersey currently receive state funds for free pre-K 3 and 4 programs in their public schools.
Although Bayonne is not one of them, some legislators hope to increase the number past 100 (almost a sixth of the state’s districts) so that low-income parents in those towns won’t have to pay for early child-care services.
The School Funding Reform Act of 2008 mandated that districts with a certain number of “at-risk” students offer full-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-old children. Democratic legislators introduced a bill in February to offer more money to the districts to institute these programs.
The legislature would allocate $110 million from the state’s Property Tax Relief Fund to the Department of Education to advance the initiative of additional full-day preschool programs.
“It’s not going to be easy…but I think this is the beginning of an important discussion,” said Secaucus-based Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto at an event at School 17 in Clifton on Feb. 9. Prieto, whose district includes East Newark, Edgewater, Fairview, Guttenberg, Harrison, Kearny, North Bergen, Secaucus, and West New York, is one of the sponsors of the bill, introduced on Feb. 8.
Other sponsors are Assemblywoman Betty Lou DeCroce (R-Morris), Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27th Dist.), and Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan (D-18 Dist.)
The bill is now in committee, according to an official from Prieto’s office, as legislators work to flesh out next fiscal year’s state budget.
The state already funds pre-K programs for 3-and 4-year olds in over 30 of New Jersey’s poorest districts including Hoboken, Jersey City, West New York, Union City, Passaic, and Patterson.
In Bayonne, all 11 elementary schools offer half-day preschool with morning and afternoon sessions for 4-year-olds (from 8:40 a.m. to 11:20 or 12:10 to 2:50 p.m.) But parents of 3-year-olds have to pay for private day care or pre-school if they want to get an early start.
“If there was funding for full-day programs that’d be wonderful. It’s vital for students to begin at a young age especially so that any learning disabilities can be identified early on,” Bayonne Superintendent Patricia McGeehan told the Bayonne Community News.
McGeehan said about 450 students are in the pre-K program but when registration time rolls around for kindergarten, 700 students or more sign up. She says this is a clear indication that if a full-day preschool program was in place more parents – those who don’t opt for the pre-K program – would register their children.
“Half-day doesn’t work for some parents, who can’t get out of work in the middle of the day to pick up their children,” added McGeehan, before noting that there is no wait list in Bayonne.
There are two “fee-based” programs that provide an all-day preschool program for $425 a month at Nicholas Oresko and Midtown Community School.
According to school officials these programs, which anyone can take advantage of, collect revenue into the districts general fund. There is currently a waiting list of one for the 2016-2017 school year.
“I commend Assembly Speaker Prieto because I think action needs to be taken,” said McGeehan.
“It’s vital for students to begin at a young age, especially so that any learning disabilities can be identified early on.” – Bayonne Superintendent Patricia McGeehan
‘Pre-K is a building block’
“Pre-k is an important building block in our necessary work to fight poverty in New Jersey. In my own district, there are five communities that have immediate need for 3- and 4- year olds pre-K and would benefit from expansion: East Newark, Fairview, Guttenberg, Kearny and North Bergen,” said Prieto when introducing the bill.
Bayonne and Weehawken are also on the list to receive the program, should the bill become law.
“As the leader of the Assembly, Speaker Prieto has been fighting to break the cycle of poverty throughout the state,” said Sam Crane of pre-K Our Way, a non-profit that supports the bill. “A solid foundation of preschool education is a pathway to that end goal, providing kids with important developmental tools and skills that they may not have access to otherwise.”
Parents in the 30-plus districts offering the programs have taken advantage.
Last May, over a dozen parents lined up outside of Jersey City’s Concordia Childhood Learning Center for nearly 48 hours to take advantage of one of 90 free state-paid pre-K spots for 3-year-olds. All parents in the district will get placement in state-paid pre-K if they apply in time, but that program has been particularly popular.
Concordia Childhood Learning Center is one of 38 preschool programs commissioned by the Jersey City Board of Education.
Hoboken is another city among the preschool programs already funded by the Department of Education, servicing roughly 800 students.
There has been talk for several years about whether the program is still necessary in districts like Hoboken – where there exists a large high-earning population – as it was mainly intended as a “head start” for the needy. But the districts do not discriminate by income in terms of who gets to take advantage, so all of the students benefit.
Superintendent Christine Johnson said that Hoboken’s preschool population is “predominantly not economically disadvantaged.”
Johnson did not respond to emails and phone calls by press time as to whether that aid is in peril.
“We are funded for the number of children enrolled in preschool from the year prior,” Johnson said in an interview. “Because the funding is predicated upon known enrollment from the previous year and predictions for future enrollment, it is hit or miss if the state will provide additional funding for the mandate.”
There are times when new families move into the community after the registration dates and are placed on a waiting list.
“Of 800 students this year, our waiting list fluctuated between 11 and 38 children at various times,” said Johnson, who noted that the district is waiting to hear back from the Department of Education after requests for additional funding for classes next year.
Steven Rodas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.