A Modest Preschool Proposal

Yesterday’s New Jersey section of the New York Times features an article by John Mooney regarding public preschools, with his focus on the uncertainty surrounding the DOE’s mandate that districts provide free full-day preschool programs to low-income 3 and 4-year-olds. Says Mooney,

For 86 middle- and working-class districts — from Hackensack to Carteret to Cape May City — that will mean universal programs available for all their children. Four hundred other districts will have to provide at least some preschool, and will decide whether to extend beyond their low-income students.

At $11,000 per kid per year, it’s an expensive initiative, and ties directly into the State’s battle to overturn the Abbott funding decisions, which require these preschools in the 31 Abbott districts. The State’s logic is that children who require extra services because of economic disadvantage live in many other towns in NJ besides the 31 designated through Abbott. By mandating preschools across the state to low-income kids, the State strategically undermines that Abbott formula by providing new and improved make-it-fair funding. This bolsters the DOE’s fight to overturn the Abbott decisions in favor of the new School Funding Reform Act, now in court (see post below). Pretty neat.

Here’s what’s not so neat. Corzine and the DOE have worked diligently (if ineffectively thus far) to streamline public education in the Garden State by issuing new efficiency mandates and advocating consolidation of school districts into uniform K-12 systems with standardized curricula and assessment. At the same time, the preschool initiative is ridden with inefficiency and redundancy.

Think about it. Corzine announces his grand preschool initiative to great acclaim. Instantly, almost 500 school superintendents –- the 86 who will need to provide universal preschool and the 400 or so who will provide preschool to just their low-income 3 and 4 year olds – spring into action, appointing an administrator or two to produce plans and budgets for implementation. Four hundred or so Personnel Directors start looking at the pool of certified pre-school teachers. Business Administrators in the 486 districts start squeezing their budgets even though Corzine promised $12,000 per kid (we know how that goes). School board members who serve on Facilities Committees in several hundred districts meet to cogitate about finding space for preschool classrooms, which have specific requirements like tiny bathrooms and more square feet per kid. Some committees start looking at renting space outside of the school grounds because there’s no space, and some start talking to private preschools.

You get the idea.

But what happened to the State’s logic about consolidation and standardization, its drive for accountability and efficiency? It’s nowhere to be found in the preschool initiative. The foundation for the State’s drive for a new way of providing educational services has evaporated as district upon district performs the same operations that could have easily been delegated on a county-wide basis.

Each county has a Special Services district that typically provides space and curricula for special needs kids and vo-tech programs. Many of these facilities are underused as more district bring their special ed children back to district, and some even rent out their space. What better way to promote consolidation and efficiency than to have the individual counties provide preschool services? It’s a lot easier to achieve equity — one of the goals here — when you have 21 counties providing services instead of 486 disparate local districts. Even home rule diehards would have to applaud. And injecting a little logic and consistency into our sprawling school system wouldn’t hurt either.

It’s not too late to backtrack. The money for preschool isn’t coming this year. Come on, DOE — how about a do-over?

What do you think?

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