New Jersey has long been under court order to provide extra funding for schools in low-income districts, and for the past 12 years, that has included full-day preschool. But now, facing dire budget cuts, some legislators are questioning whether the state's education system can afford to boost the school readiness of 3- and 4-year-olds and would rather see the money spent on middle- and upper-income schools.
In Newark, the Ironbound Community Center runs a neighborhood preschool in a gleaming new building that provides 150 children — mostly from low-income, minority families — with a full day of learning through play.
On a recent day, some kids worked on writing their names in a small group with a teacher, others played with blocks and another cluster played inside a cardboard castle. Programs like these are offered free to all children in New Jersey school districts that have a high percentage of low-income kids.
"Children play with each other; conversation is always encouraged," school director Grace Blanco says. To qualify for the state funding, Blanco says, her preschool must have certified teachers, small class sizes and a curriculum based on research that has found young children learn best through play and conversation.
"Teachers talk to children, ask questions — open-ended questions. The children really choose what they want to do and how they're going to play," she says.
Without this free preschool, Blanco says, many of these kids would be in a low-cost day care watching TV, and that's one of the reasons most poor children arrive at kindergarten behind middle- and upper-income classmates.
A Good Cause, But Costly
The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University has followed the impact of these high-quality preschools on low-income children. Its director, Steven Barnett, says New Jersey has made considerable progress in closing the gap in skills between high- and low-income kids when they arrive on the first day of kindergarten.
"There's no question you can make a big dent," he says. "I think it's reasonable to think about eliminating half the achievement gap at the kindergarten door."
Nobody is disputing Barnett's findings, but the state's resolve to close that gap may be crumbling under the weight of highest-in-the-nation property taxes, which is the primary way the schools are funded, and massive cuts to state education funding that have hit suburban districts hardest.
"The fact is it'd be nice to offer lots of programs. But New Jersey is broke, and the constitution doesn't require it," says state Sen. Michael Doherty, a Republican from Warren.
What's Fairest To All?
Doherty represents a large swath of suburban New Jersey where resentment toward the extra funding of low-income schools runs deep. He is proposing that the preschools for poor kids be cut to half-day, and the $300,000 saved be spent on K-through-12 education in the suburbs. Doherty says he prefers the way most states collect an income tax that then funds school districts equally.
"We don't do that in New Jersey," he says. "We collect it progressively, and then we hand it out progressively on steroids, so for every penny that my towns get, other towns in urban areas are getting 40 bucks. So you tell me, anywhere on planet Earth, where that would be fair?"
It's fair in New Jersey, says David Sciarra, the director of the Education Law Center. The Newark organization is the main defender of extra funding for school districts with high concentrations of poverty. These districts don't have the property tax revenue to adequately support their schools, and half-day preschool is ineffective because working parents don't use it — even when it's free — because they would have to leave work to pick up their children. So Sciarra says it's fair for the state to pay more for high-poverty schools, and it's money well spent to help children when they are very young.
"This is probably one of the most effective education reforms that we've done in New Jersey for disadvantaged kids in our poorest communities," Sciarra says. "It would be a tragedy if we scaled this back."
Sciarra is trying to patch a hole in a system that everyone agrees is broken. But changing the way New Jersey taxes its residents and funds its schools would require both political parties to agree on a fix and be willing to cooperate enough to move forward. That hasn't happened here for a very long time.