Wrapping services for the early learner

Wrapping services for the early learner

(New Jersey) Lawmakers here are considering several proposals designed to transform early childhood education by increasing learning opportunities and services for tens of thousands of the state’s youngest children.

The package includes bills that would require quality preschool programming at more school districts, fund wrap-around services for some preschool children, establish full-day kindergarten in all public schools and create a new state Department of Early Childhood.

“There is nothing more important than ensuring the success of New Jersey's children, and that means creating policies that support their healthy development from the earliest age,” Sen. Teresa Ruiz, chair of the Senate Education Committee and sponsor of the bills, said in a statement.

“These proposals are focused on streamlining and strengthening early childhood programs and expanding access to high-quality education programs,” the Essex Democrat said. “They are also designed to modernize our policies to reflect the challenges faced by many families today with both parents working and struggling to meet the increasing demands of a 21st Century economy.”

Across the nation, states and school districts are working on many fronts to enhance pre-kindergarten programs given the impact they’ve been found to have on a child’s academic success once she or he enters the K-12 system. Research has repeatedly shown that by the time some children reach kindergarten, they are already far behind their peers in skills and measures of school readiness.

These educational gaps tend to be much more difficult and costly to close as children advance through elementary, middle and high school, according to The Center for Public Education – an initiative of the National School Boards Association.

“This realization has led many states to try to get it right from the start by expanding their financial investments in pre-kindergarten services, with a goal to better prepare young children for school success,” reads a report on the non-profit’s website. “With public schools facing heightened accountability requirements, pre-k has emerged as an important strategy to promote school readiness and close achievement gaps in elementary school and beyond.”

The package of bills passed by New Jersey’s Senate Education Committee last month include provisions that begin with expanded home visitations for new mothers and culminate with mandatory full-day kindergarten.

S1456 would appropriate $18 million to restore before- and after-school care programs lost to prior budget cuts that provide “wrap-around” child care services to families in some 30 of the state’s poorest school districts.

These services historically supplemented state-funded preschool, covering up to four hours of before- and after-school care during the school year and full-day care in the summer. Stringent restrictions were placed on the program in 2010; the bill would restore the income eligibility limit to 250 percent of the federal poverty level and amend the work requirements to allow parents who work part-time to receive subsidized child care beyond school day hours.

Ruiz’s S997 would dedicate $103 million to expand early childhood education in the state, as previously contemplated under New Jersey’s 2008 School Funding Reform Act. The legislation directs the Commissioner of Education to provide state aid to up to 17 qualified districts “for the purpose of providing free access to full-day preschool for all three- and four-year-old children residing in the school district, giving priority to districts with the highest concentration of at-risk students.”

Currently, according to information from the New Jersey General Assembly’s Majority Office, less than 40 school districts in the state provide publicly funded preschool programs for three- and four-year-olds, despite the 2008 School Funding Reform Act calling for expansion to over 100 districts.

A third bill would require all school districts to provide full-day kindergarten programs for their students. All but about 20 percent of New Jersey school districts have already moved to full-day kindergarten, according to a report on the legislation, and supporters argue that it should be mandatory.

The proposal would cost about $78 million, according to Ruiz's office. But investing in full-day kindergarten for students could prevent problems later on in school and effectively save state resources, Sen. Shirley Turner, who co-sponsored the bill, reportedly said. And, aside from benefiting students, the full-day program would also help families, she noted.

“We are not living in an 'Ozzie and Harriet' world anymore,” the Jersey Journal quoted Turner as saying. “We don't have very many families who can afford for the mothers to stay home and take care of the children.”

S1454 would establish as a new principal department within the Executive Branch the Department of Early Childhood to bring programs and services currently offered in four separate state departments, including child care resource and referral agencies, New Jersey Home Visitation Program and WIC breastfeeding programs under one department.

And, finally, S973 – the Early Childhood Innovation Act – would create a five-year innovation loan pilot program within the New Jersey Economic Development Authority that would allow non-governmental entities to pay the cost of expanding early childhood education programs and receive a portion of shared state savings resulting from the investment.

New Jersey’s overall high school graduation rate has been on a steady incline the last few years and reached its highest level of 89.7 percent in 2015 but rates still vary among subgroups, according to the state’s Department of Education. While white and Asian students graduated at rates of 94 and 96.5 percent, respectively, just 82.8 percent of Hispanic students and 81.5 percent of African American students earned a diploma in 2015.

Likewise, according to a 2014 KIDS COUNT® data snapshot on Early Reading Proficiency in the United States, more than half of New Jersey’s fourth-graders are not reading proficiently by 4th grade – a key predictor of a student’s future educational and economic success. New Jersey’s low-income fourth graders fared even worse, with 78 percent scoring below proficient on national literacy tests. Since 2003, the achievement gap between New Jersey’s low-income students and their wealthier peers grew 3 percent, the report said.

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