By Michael Hill
Forty-five thousand New Jersey children attend state-funded preschool in 31 poor or Abbott districts.
“There’s a lot support for preschool but no one who appears to be willing to make it their top priority. I think what we needed is a champion,” said Pre-K Our Way Leadership Group member Cecilia Zalkind.
The Ironbound Early Learning Center expanded its preschool program last year thanks to a public-private partnership. The private part coming from philanthropist Brian Maher and a donation of $5.5 million.
“I think it’s critical to defeat the cycle of poverty that many people are in because they don’t get an education.” said Maher.
Maher says having a skilled workforce and a productive state start with pre-K. In January, Maher put even more of his money in to Pre-K Our Way, a heavy-hitting non-profit of former governors, business executives and foundations. They’ve crisscrossed the state to urge everyday people to join the campaign because Maher says a poll shows more than half of those surveyed support preschool for three and four year olds.
“I think part of the problem is most people don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Gee whiz, I think I should do something about early education expanded in New Jersey,” Maher said.
In the late 90s, attorney David Sciarra successfully argued for state-funded Pre-k in poor districts. He’s going back to court to get the state to honor its commitment to fund it for 50,000 more New Jersey kids. He says the academic results should motivate Trenton to act.
“We’ve seen in the Abbott program in our cities, two major areas of benefit. One to the kids is their later school success when they get to school and second to the taxpayers because we’re saving money,” said Sciarra.
“If there’s only one investment, I’m going to borrow a quote from Governor Kean, if there was only one investment you make it would be pre-K because it has the biggest return on investment,” said Pre-K Our Way Project Coordinator Sam Crane.
Recently, when New York was debating universal Pre-K and looking for direction,
“Who did New York turn to to find out what the program should look like? They turned to New Jersey. We are the model for the rest of the country,” said Zalkind.
Pre-K Our Way says when New Jersey lawmakers and the governor want to fund a priority, they find the money to do it and that’s why it’s banking on making Pre-K a priority.