County-Wide Preschools!

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New Jersey’s public schools, under a new state mandate to provide free preschool to 3, 4, and 5 year-olds from low-income families, are in a pickle. Oh, heck – let’s call it a whole deli platter. While few dispute the advantages of pre-school for poor kids (well, a few do: see here and here) administrators and schools boards worry about finding suitable space and about whether the State’s promise to fund the programs is reliable. We already have free public preschools in the 31 districts formerly known as Abbotts but, in an acknowledgment that our poor kids are scattered around the map, all school districts must provide the programs for their impoverished populations. New Jersey districts have just a couple of weeks left to file 5-year plans with the DOE explaining exactly how they plan to roll out the pre-schools, which under order from the State Legislature must begin next September for 20% of these children. However, Corzine has been repeatedly telegraphing that he may back off.

The Star-Ledger recently reported,

Corzine is grappling with a revenue shortfall of at least $400 million in the current state budget and a hole of up to $4 billion in the spending plan he will present to lawmakers in March. He acknowledged that has led to concern that the state will defer providing $50 million next year to begin expanding preschool to communities with high concentrations of needy students.

And The Record adds today,

Although Governor Corzine hinted last week at the New Jersey School Boards Association conference that the budget crisis could delay the state-mandated expansion, districts are still facing deadlines to craft preschool plans for next year.

So school districts are in a bind. They have to move forward with pre-school plans, but anyone reading the tea leaves can tell that the odds are high that this may be, at least for now, an intellectual exercise.

There’s also a fair amount of wariness about the DOE’s ability to manage this laudable project, given the circus at Lucille Davy’s office, with regulations issued, rescinded, reissued, corrected, etc. Now we’re going to educate an additional 30,000 toddlers by 2013?

Here’s an idea. Hold onto your hats. County-wide Preschool.

1)We’re already struggling with managing equitable and effective education for our kindergarten-12th graders.

2) We’ve just hired 21 new Executive County Superintendents — one for each county –who pull in a nice chunk of change: $120,000 a year plus, since most of them are retired superintendents, an additional annual check of $48,000 to $135,000 a year. (What exactly do they do, anyway?)

3) One of the biggest challenges for districts in implementing these pre-schools is finding adequate space. Many are looking at portable trailers, leasing space, raising class size to accommodate the extra children.

4) We do this already with our preschool handicapped kids, unless their home district can accommodate them.

Why can’t we make our preschools county-wide? Find a couple of districts within a county that happen to have extra space and put the classes there. Or everyone in a county go in together to lease space. Think of it as an experiment in overcoming the limitations of home rule and local governance. We have been presented with a ripe opportunity to reinvent the artificial way we segregate our children. Any takers?

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