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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Should All New Jerseyans Have Access to Free Preschool?

Emily Flud
Sarah Renninger

Emily Flud, a teacher at Middle Township Elementary School No. 1, discusses “shapes” with her preschool students.

By Sarah Renninger

President Biden, speaking for 73 minutes at his Feb. 7 State of the Union address, talked about many topics, ranging from Covid, to the economy and bipartisan legislation, to gun safety laws.  
He also, for just a few minutes, spoke about education.
The president claimed that public education has made us “the best-educated, best-prepared nation in the world. But the world has caught up.” He stated that Jill, his wife, and full-time teacher, has an expression, “‘Any nation that out-educates us will out-compete us.’”
Biden continued, “If you want America to have the best-educated workforce, let’s finish the job by providing access to preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds.”
Gov. Murphy agrees.   

New Jersey Preschool Funding

The cornerstone of Murphy’s agenda since he first ran for governor in 2017 was to provide free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds. He stated in 2021 at an Early Childhood Center in North Jersey, “Education in general, and pre-K in particular, is one of our best opportunities to close the achievement gap for students who come from low-income and disadvantaged communities. Investing in early childhood education just makes sense.”
According to a report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), the Murphy administration has increased funding for public preschool by over $310 million (since Murphy became governor), resulting in substantial growth in the number of districts offering state-funded preschool programs.
Currently, for New Jersey school districts to apply for funding for full-day preschool, they must have 10% of their students coming from lower-income families, defined by being eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
The New Jersey Division of Early Childhood Services (DECS) lists the following school districts as receiving state funding for a preschool program: Cape May, Dennis Township, Lower Township, Middle Township, North Wildwood, Ocean City, Wildwood, Wildwood Crest, and Woodbine.
All state-funded, full-day preschools have rigorous policies and requirements. Preschool classrooms must be of a specific size and include a bathroom. There is also a class size maximum of 15 students. Districts are required to have adequate infrastructure and staff resources, data systems, and supports for children with special needs and English language learners. 

Cape May County Districts

All 14 school districts that service elementary students in our county offer some type of preschool program (not including the Cape May County Technical School District or the Lower Cape May Regional School District. Stone Harbor preschoolers attend the Avalon School District).
Also, there are at least three federally funded Head Start programs in the county for low-income families, serving children ages birth to 5.
In the Lower Township Elementary School District, 22 full day preschool classrooms for both 3- and 4-year-olds are supporting young children in social skills and early academics. 
Superintendent Jeff Samaniego states, “Our goal from the start of this endeavor was to become a model program with developmentally appropriate best practices in early childhood education.”
Upper Township does not receive any state funding for preschool. They charge $6,500 a year for young children to attend their program. They use a lottery system to select 30 students.  
The West Cape May School District offers a half-day preschool program for only 4-year-olds at a cost of around $2,000 a year.
Most school districts have waiting lists for their programs because they don’t have the infrastructure required to house all the eligible preschoolers. 
Christian Paskalides, principal of Middle Township Elementary School No. 1 explained, “We currently don’t have the facilities or the required space to accommodate every preschool-aged child in the district.”  
David Salvo, superintendent of the Middle Township School District, noted, “Options for more preschool classrooms and play areas are currently being explored.”  
He agrees with Paskalides that all Middle Township preschoolers should have access to an early learning environment.
Many districts hold a lottery for a designated number of seats/openings because of the lack of classroom space. 

What Does the Future Hold?

The evidence is there. Numerous studies clearly show that children benefit greatly from having a high-quality preschool learning experience. 
A review of literature states that when young students are compared to other children who did not attend preschool, the benefits of participation are substantial.  
Most teachers and principals report that young children who attend a nurturing, caring, and developmentally appropriate preschool are more prepared for the rigors of kindergarten.
Educational leaders support the research that shows that children who attend preschool perform better academically and socially and are more likely to graduate from high school.
The Biden administration believes that the high cost and limited availability of preschool has held back working families.
Do you agree that access to free preschool programs can make a real difference in working families and in the lives of young children?
We want to hear your thoughts! Send your thoughts and opinions to srenninger@cmcherald.com, send in a Spout Off, or leave a comment on our social media channels. 

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