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Ruiz Introduces Legislation To Expand Early Childhood Education in NJ

Ruiz, Sweeney, Beck

TRENTON – Senate Education Chair M. Teresa Ruiz has introduced legislation to expand early childhood education to more students in New Jersey. The bills are part of “New Jersey: Investing In You,” a plan announced by Senate Democrats in December that targets six key sectors with legislation including early childhood education.

“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 Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “These bills will allow for the expansion of high-quality preschool in the state, by first funding the next phase of expansion to additional districts. They will also create an innovative program that would utilize private and philanthropic funds to help pay the cost of early childhood education programs in the future. This is a first step to expanding high-quality pre-K to all children in the state, but it is a major step forward.”

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. The bill 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. 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 EDA would not be permitted to issue 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,” said Senator Ruiz. “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.”

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