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Ruiz Introduces ‘Early Childhood Bill Package’ to Support the Success of Children, Working Families in NJ

Ruiz ICC

Includes State Department of Early Childhood, Full-Day Kindergarten, Wrap-Around Services, Child Care Tax Credit

TRENTON – Senate Education Chair M. Teresa Ruiz has introduced a bill package that would establish policies to improve the lives of children in New Jersey and help working parents balance the 21st Century demands of their jobs and families. The bills are part of Senator Ruiz’s early childhood agenda that is focused on improving programs and services for children in the state, from prenatal to age 5, and providing greater access to them for residents.

“There is nothing more important than ensuring the success of New Jersey’s kids, and that begins at the very start of a child’s life. Proper care from pregnancy through age 5 is vital to the healthy development of children and must be a priority in shaping policies that affect our residents,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “These proposals are focused on streamlining and strengthening early childhood programs and expanding access to high-quality child care and education programs. 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.”

Research on early child development shows the critical need for intervention and supports as early as during pregnancy and through infancy. The brain develops most rapidly in the first few years of a child’s life and, during these critical years, the foundation is laid for a child’s physical and mental health, according to information from the World Health Organization. The senator’s proposals are designed to create policies that better ensure the success of children from infancy into preschool and beyond.

The bills would establish full-day kindergarten in all public school districts in the state, fund wrap-around services for preschool children in former Abbott districts, expand home visitation programs for new mothers, and create a state Department of Early Childhood dedicated to providing the most effective programs for New Jersey children and families in the most efficient way. The package also helps to provide financial relief to working families to offset the high cost of child care, which in 2013 cost on average more than $11,534 annually for an infant and $9,546 for a preschooler, according to the Advocates for Children of New Jersey’s 2015 Kids Count report.

The bills would:

Create a Department of Early Childhood (S1454) Establishes as a new principal department within the Executive Branch the Department of Early Childhood to bring the programs and services currently offered in five separate state departments – which include child care resource and referral agencies, school nutrition and WIC breastfeeding programs – under one department. The commissioner would serve as a member of the governor’s cabinet, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

Require Full-Day Kindergarten Statewide (S1455) – Require all school districts to provide full-day kindergarten programs for their students.  A school that does not currently provide full-day kindergarten would be required to begin offering it by the beginning of the second full school year following the bill’s enactment.

Establish a Child Care Tax Credit (S1453) – Provides a state income tax credit of up to $1,000 for married couples and $500 for single individuals for expenses paid for the care of a child or dependent when necessary for the taxpayer’s employment. The credit would be available to those who are allowed the federal child and dependent care credit and have New Jersey taxable income of up to $60,000.

Restore Before and After Care Programs (S1456) – Expand eligibility for “wrap-around” child care services provided to families in former Abbott school districts. This would restore the before and after care services that 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. Provides an $18 million appropriation.

Expand Home Visitation Program for New Mothers (S1475) – Creates a three-year Medicaid home visitation demonstration project designed to provide ongoing health and parenting information, parent and family support, and links to essential health and social services during pregnancy, infancy, and early childhood.  Research shows these kinds of programs decrease pre-term and low-weight births, increase maternal employment, increase father involvement, decrease child abuse and neglect, decrease welfare costs, improve school readiness, and lead to several other positive outcomes.

The following bills, which are part of the Senate Democrats’ “New Jersey: Investing In You” initiative, were also introduced in the new legislative session:

Early Childhood Innovation Act (S973) – The bill 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.

Pre-K Expansion (S997) – The bill would expand early childhood education in the state, as contemplated under the 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. The bill would dedicate $103 million to the Department of Education for the expansion.