TRENTON – Despite concerns about creating a new bureaucracy, legislators have given their initial endorsement to a plan to expand the state’s Cabinet by establishing a Department of Early Childhood.

The bill, S2475/A4178, would transfer state functions and responsibilities from four state departments into the new one, including the current Division of Early Childhood Education. Essentially, if it’s part of a program relating to children from pregnancy to age 8, it would likely be consolidated.

Already a bureaucracy

Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex, said the proposal would eliminate the confusion and complexity of licensing and red tape that childcare providers face today.

“Childcare providers are regulated by the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Education, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health among others,” Lopez said. “The lack of a unified Department of Early Childhood creates unnecessary bureaucracy.”

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Barbara DeMarco, lead lobbyist for Early Childhood Education Advocates, said families need the simplicity of a single point of access, as depending on their child’s needs they can now be bounced between the departments of health, education and human services.

“This will stop redundancy in the number of people working on the same kid. This will allow a single funding source,” DeMarco said.

'A cultural mismatch'

Cathy Chin, executive director of the Alliance for the Betterment of Citizens with Disabilities, said early intervention programs are now administered by the Department of Health – which tries hard, but is "a cultural mismatch."

“How could this not have impacted the infants, toddlers and families we are charged to serve?” said Chin, who said the new department would be a better fit.

But not all groups see the plan that way, presenting an unusual split in opinion.

Unintended consequences

Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, worries the change will lead to confusion in school districts, duplication of efforts and maybe even inconsistent policy approaches.

“We believe it’s critically important that our preschool system and our K-12 system be fully aligned as a single system,” Bradley said.

Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said the change would create a new bureaucracy, both complicated and expensive. Better to improve what’s already there, she said.

“Sometimes the loftiest ideas run aground on the sandbar of unintended consequences,” Ginsburg said.

'Districts are on their knees'

Ginsburg said schools need to focus on major challenges currently: staffing shortages, mental health, school security and more.

“In the wake of the COVID pandemic, with our renewed concerns about school security and all the other issues that confront districts right now, districts are on their knees,” she said. “This is not the time to create a large, new government entity that will require districts and child care providers to participate in that complicated transition process.”

The New Jersey Education Association appreciates the concerns but backs the bill, said Francine Pfeffer, the union’s associate director of government relations.

“Although I know many people are concerned that this bill is going to create fragmentation within the Department of Education because early childhood will be separated from it, it will also place a focus on early childhood,” Pfeffer said.

The bill has been endorsed by both the Senate and Assembly education committees, with eight of the 10 lawmakers who’ve had the chance to vote on it supportive.

In both houses, the bill was referenced to the appropriations committee for a second vote. Both those committees are likely to meet multiple times this month, in advance of approving the 2023 state budget by a June 30 deadline.

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