TRENTON – This year’s 17% enrollment decline in New Jersey school districts’ preschool programs could actually be moderate compared to other states, according to Rutgers University researchers.

The latest installment of an annual yearbook on state preschool programs by the National Institute for Early Education Research said preschool programs took a major hit this year everywhere because of the pandemic. It also found preschool growth was slowing nationally even before the pandemic.

New Jersey had been an exception to that trend, accounting for $79 million of the $296 million nationwide increase in preschool spending in the 2019-20 school year. New Jersey and Oregon were then the only states to expand access to preschool in 2020-21, despite the pandemic.

“This past year made absolutely clear the extent to which our families and communities rely on early childhood education to be able to participate in our society and our economy,” said First Lady Tammy Murphy, in an online press conference in conjunction with the report’s release.

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Gov. Phil Murphy's proposed state budget expands state preschool spending by another $50 million, with a little more than half of that going to support programs in districts that haven’t gotten state preschool aid before.

Steve Barnett, NIEER’s director, said a survey of parents by the institute suggests there has been a 25% decline in preschool participation this year, with public programs seeing bigger drops than private programs.

“That presents challenges for next year,” Barnett said. “What will happen to children who missed pre-K this year? How are programs going to recruit a full class next year? What will they do with children who missed? Can they repeat? Will they go forward? What are we going to provide in summer and fall going forward? States are working on all of this, but the work is far from done.”

If parents “redshirt” their preschoolers and kindergarteners, choosing to hold them back a year to compensate for recent learning loss, that could lead to unusually large preschool cohorts and unusually small numbers of first graders.

Barnett said enrollment declines across the states were “substantial to huge,” with some parents unwilling to put youngsters in virtual programs. Preschools also had a hard time publicizing what was available, with families holed up at home during the typical registration season.

“Traditional ways of reaching out to families, many of them were just gone,” Barnett said.

Assistant Education Commissioner Cary Booker, who heads the state Division of Early Childhood Education, said New Jersey’s preschool program was “very resilient” over the past year, considering the challenges families faced and their “real and substantial fears.”

“Now as we are beginning to focus on getting kids back in school in person, providing additional supports to school districts in their outreach is going to be very, very important,” Booker said. “The usual ways of recruiting students have been disrupted, and I think we’re going to work hard to find creative ways to get the word out and do the outreach that school districts haven’t been able to do for over a year.”

New Jersey is one of five places the study says spending enough for high-quality, full-day public preschool programs, along with North Carolina, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Washington, D.C. The state spends $14,103 per child, compared to the national average state funding of $5,496 per child.

Nationally, according to NIEER, the country should spend $12 billion to improve the programs it has, $30 billion to expand programs to all low-income 3- and 4-year-olds and $32 billion to expand to all 3- and 4-year-olds, regardless of economic background In New Jersey, those come to about $1.7 billion combined.

In New Jersey, about one-third of school districts offer preschool programs that enroll 32% of 4-year-olds and 21% of 3-year-olds. Some others are in Head Start or special education programs, but 70% of 3-year-olds and 59% of 4-year-olds aren’t in a public preschool program.

New Jersey missed two of the 10 benchmarks on the NIEER report’s quality standards checklist: assistant teachers having a child development associate credential and staff professional development that includes at least 15 hours of annual in-service training.

“Only 14 programs meet the staff professional development benchmark, which remains the most difficult benchmark for programs to meet,” said Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

Six states meet all 10 of the benchmarks.

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