Ruiz introduces legislation to expand preschools in New Jersey

Since 1999, Newark along with New Jersey's former Abbott districts, have provided free preschool for three and four year olds.

There's ample evidence and widespread agreement that these early childhood programs have provided tremendous benefits for the children who have attended. One Rutgers University study found that Abbott preschool programs increased achievement in language arts and literacy, math, and science.

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Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (center), visits a preschool with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (right).

Now, one state lawmaker says it's about time to expand early childhood education to more children in New Jersey.

State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, a Democrat who represents the 29th District, has introduced a two-bill package that would dedicated $103 million to expand early childhood education to up to 17 qualified districts and create an innovative program that would use private and philanthropic funds to help pay the cost of early childhood education programs in the future.

“Research shows that quality early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in our children. We already have a model program operating in the state’s former Abbott Districts but we have to do more to provide all of our children with the foundation they need to be successful,” said Ruiz, who is chair of the Senate Education Committee.

"This is a first step to expanding high-quality pre-K to all children in the state, but it is a major step forward,” Ruiz said.

The first bill (S997) would expand early childhood education in the state, as contemplated under the 2008 School Funding Reform Act. The legislation would dedicate $103 million to the Department of Education for the expansion.

Under the legislation, the education commissioner would provide state aid to up to 17 qualified districts to provide free full-day preschool for all three- and four-year old children residing in the school district.

The commissioner would determine which qualified districts would receive the aid based on the districts demonstrating their readiness to operate a preschool program consistent with the state’s preschool quality standards, with priority going to the districts with the highest concentration of at-risk pupils.

The second bill (S973), designated as 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 and receive a portion of shared state savings resulting from the investment.

Specifically, an eligible nonprofit organization, selected by a governmental entity, would be provided with funding from a private lender for early childhood education services. Based on a contract between all parties, if certain educational metrics are met, the governmental entity would make payments to the lender for the amount of the loan and a predetermined proportion of savings generated.

The bill creates a non-lapsing revolving fund within the EDA which would be used to guarantee the loans and to pay for administration of the program. The loan fund could be credited with money from state appropriations, public or private donations, grant funding and loan guarantee program fees.

The legislation would prohibit the EDA from issuing a loan guarantee in an amount greater than the available and committed moneys in the loan fund. In addition, the bill requires EDA to solicit grants from philanthropic organizations or other private sources for the program.

“This is part of my early childhood agenda that is focused on improving programs and services for children in the state, from prenatal to age 5,” Ruiz said.

“This legislative session, we will also be discussing expanding full-day kindergarten, providing high quality day care for children, infants to age 3, funding wrap-around services for preschool children in former Abbott districts, implementing home visitation programs for new mothers, and creating a state Department of Early Childhood dedicated to the important effort of ensuring that we are providing the most effective programs for young children and families in the most efficient way,” the senator said.

S997 and S973 were introduced last week and will be heard in the Senate Education Committee in March.

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