Under-funded Preschool Mandate Drives Up Costs

While Trenton’s preschool mandate may seem well intended, it is another under funded mandate whose costly compliance will drive up property taxes and force cuts to regular education programs.  It is rather difficult to fathom how the state can continue to mandate under funded requirements that unnecessarily increase the cost of providing educational services and programs especially considering how our schools likely will be forced to build new classroom capacity.  But this is exactly what the state is doing with the (McNichol, 2008) “state’s biggest expansion of preschool for low-income students since the state Supreme Court’s Abbott v. Burke rulings, which ordered universal pre-kindergarten” in all 31 Abbott districts.  Moreover, the Court’s Abbott preschool decision was by itself a major expansion of the State of New Jersey’s thorough and efficient education clause because the State Constitution only pertains to students five to eighteen years old. 

 

Although every school district is required to ultimately enroll at least 90% of their eligible children by the 2013-2014 school year, the state is setting aside only $350 million to cover the costs of the educating another 30,000 preschool students statewide (Brody, 2008) over the next five years.  But the Corzine administration is already laying the groundwork for a deferral of the      $50 million set aside for the mandate’s first year if not the entire $350 million through its suggestions of spending reductions it may have to make in order to close projected budget deficits of $1.2 billion in the current fiscal year and $5 billion in the upcoming 2009 fiscal year.  Neither Governor Corzine nor Department of Education Commissioner Davy has said a word, however, about deferring the mandate’s costly requirements which will be paid for by local school districts. 

 

The New Jersey School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) of 2008, which is more commonly referred to as the new state school funding formula, included a preschool mandate requiring (Wojcik, 2008) all eligible “at-risk three and four-year-old children be offered high quality preschool program beginning at age three” in every school district statewide.  Eligible children include all those who are eligible for (Brody, 2008) “a free or reduced-price lunch.”  Each school district must begin by enrolling at least 20% of their district’s eligible student population by the 2009-2010 school year and increasing annually to 35% in 2010-2011, 50% in 2011-2012, 65% in 2012-2013, and 90% in 2013-2014.   

 

The mandate requires full day instruction and limits each preschool student class size to no more than 15.  Because these are mandate-protected classes, if a school lacks sufficient classroom capacity it will be forced to consolidate classes or increase class sizes for other grades to make room for the preschoolers in September.  But if a school district builds, acquires or leases additional classroom facilities to accommodate the preschoolers, none of these costs will be funded by the State of New Jersey.

 

Each class must be taught by a preschool certified Master teacher and one Master teacher’s aide.  In addition, each school district is required to have a Master teacher without any other teaching responsibilities plus a preschool intervention and referral team, a child advisory council as well as a community and parental involvement specialist.  However, only as much as 20% of the Master teacher’s compensation will be considered as outside of the state’s administrative cap and as part of the Special Revenue Fund rather than the General Fund.  Therefore, the mandated additional salaries and benefits not only will be paid for by local school districts rather than the state but also virtually all of these expenses will be included within the cap forcing other non-mandate protected programs to be cut. 

 

Making matters even more difficult is the prospect of forced intra-district busing.  Because of New Jersey’s two mile rule, if preschoolers live beyond the two mile radius or if there are too many preschoolers for the available space in their local school, then the school district will be required by New Jersey law not only to provide bus services for these preschoolers but also for all of its other students within the district.  However, the cost of busing students will not be funded by the state. 

 

With the ever increasing number, scope and cost of state under funded mandates, it begs the question of what costly programs will Trenton require next?  Given the mandate for full day preschool classes, can state mandated full day kindergarten be far off?  This preschool mandate seems to lay the foundation for mandated full day kindergarten because it is difficult to believe that Trenton would mandate full day preschool as well as first grade but allow kindergarten to remain as only a half day program. 

 

However, many districts in New Jersey provide only half day kindergarten as a way of saving on facility and faculty costs because one teacher can teach twice as many students.  Because it seems as if the state is reluctant to commit the necessary resources to fully fund its preschool mandate, it seems likely that the state would also under fund a full day kindergarten mandate.  Given Trenton’s track record, it seems reasonable to expect that not only will state education mandates continue to be under funded but also that they will continue to drive up property taxes as a result. 

 

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References

Brody, L., (2008) The Big Picture: Districts grappling with preschool mandate, The Record, September 21, 2008. 

McNichol, D., (2008) Budget troubles endanger $350M preschool plan, The Star Ledger, October 30, 2008. 

Wojcik, S., (2008) Full-day preschool program in the works at Alpha School, The Express-Times, September 24, 2008.   

 

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