Which Children Should Get New Jersey's Funding?

Originally published on April 10, 2011 10:50 am

New Jersey has long been under court order to provide extra funding for schools in low-income districts, and for the past 12 years, that has included full-day preschool. But now, facing dire budget cuts, some legislators are questioning whether the state's education system can afford to boost the school readiness of 3- and 4-year-olds and would rather see the money spent on middle- and upper-income schools.

In Newark, the Ironbound Community Center runs a neighborhood preschool in a gleaming new building that provides 150 children — mostly from low-income, minority families — with a full day of learning through play.

On a recent day, some kids worked on writing their names in a small group with a teacher, others played with blocks and another cluster played inside a cardboard castle. Programs like these are offered free to all children in New Jersey school districts that have a high percentage of low-income kids.

"Children play with each other; conversation is always encouraged," school director Grace Blanco says. To qualify for the state funding, Blanco says, her preschool must have certified teachers, small class sizes and a curriculum based on research that has found young children learn best through play and conversation.

"Teachers talk to children, ask questions — open-ended questions. The children really choose what they want to do and how they're going to play," she says.

Without this free preschool, Blanco says, many of these kids would be in a low-cost day care watching TV, and that's one of the reasons most poor children arrive at kindergarten behind middle- and upper-income classmates.

A Good Cause, But Costly

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University has followed the impact of these high-quality preschools on low-income children. Its director, Steven Barnett, says New Jersey has made considerable progress in closing the gap in skills between high- and low-income kids when they arrive on the first day of kindergarten.

"There's no question you can make a big dent," he says. "I think it's reasonable to think about eliminating half the achievement gap at the kindergarten door."

Nobody is disputing Barnett's findings, but the state's resolve to close that gap may be crumbling under the weight of highest-in-the-nation property taxes, which is the primary way the schools are funded, and massive cuts to state education funding that have hit suburban districts hardest.

"The fact is it'd be nice to offer lots of programs. But New Jersey is broke, and the constitution doesn't require it," says state Sen. Michael Doherty, a Republican from Warren.

What's Fairest To All?

Doherty represents a large swath of suburban New Jersey where resentment toward the extra funding of low-income schools runs deep. He is proposing that the preschools for poor kids be cut to half-day, and the $300,000 saved be spent on K-through-12 education in the suburbs. Doherty says he prefers the way most states collect an income tax that then funds school districts equally.

"We don't do that in New Jersey," he says. "We collect it progressively, and then we hand it out progressively on steroids, so for every penny that my towns get, other towns in urban areas are getting 40 bucks. So you tell me, anywhere on planet Earth, where that would be fair?"

It's fair in New Jersey, says David Sciarra, the director of the Education Law Center. The Newark organization is the main defender of extra funding for school districts with high concentrations of poverty. These districts don't have the property tax revenue to adequately support their schools, and half-day preschool is ineffective because working parents don't use it — even when it's free — because they would have to leave work to pick up their children. So Sciarra says it's fair for the state to pay more for high-poverty schools, and it's money well spent to help children when they are very young.

"This is probably one of the most effective education reforms that we've done in New Jersey for disadvantaged kids in our poorest communities," Sciarra says. "It would be a tragedy if we scaled this back."

Sciarra is trying to patch a hole in a system that everyone agrees is broken. But changing the way New Jersey taxes its residents and funds its schools would require both political parties to agree on a fix and be willing to cooperate enough to move forward. That hasn't happened here for a very long time.

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LIANE HANSEN, HANSEN:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

While there's been high drama over the federal budget this past week, states have also been struggling to balance their books and tighten their belts.

New Jersey is going through a financial crisis. But one line item may be difficult to cut. For more than a decade, the state has been under court order to provide extra funding for low-income school districts. Now some state legislators say New Jersey can no longer afford to fully fund the school districts. Others say it's a matter of fairness.

Nancy Solomon has the story.

(Soundbite of children at play)

NANCY SOLOMON: In Newark, the Ironbound Community Center runs a neighborhood preschool in a gleaming new building that provides 150 children, who are mostly from low-income minority families, with a full day of learning through play.

Unidentified Child #1: No, I broked it.

SOLOMON: Some kids are working on writing their names in a small group with a teacher, while others play with blocks, and another cluster is hobbling inside a cardboard castle.

Programs like these are offered free to all children in New Jersey school districts that have a high percentage of low-income kids.

Ms. GRACE BLANCO (Director, Ironbound Community Center): The children play with each other and conversation is always encouraged.

SOLOMON: School director Grace Blanco says to qualify for the state funding her preschool must have certified teachers, small class sizes, and a curriculum based on research that has found young children learn best through play and conversation.

Ms. BLANCO: Teachers talk to children, ask questions - open-ended questions. The children really choose what they want to do and how they're going to play.

Hi, guys. How are you today?

Unidentified Child #2: Just woke up from a nap.

Ms. BLANCO: You just woke up from your nap. I know that.

SOLOMON: Without this free preschool, Blanco says, many of these kids would be in a low-cost day care, watching TV, and that's one of the reasons most poor children arrive at kindergarten behind middle and upper income classmates.

The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University has followed the impact of these high-quality preschools. It's director, Steven Barnett, says New Jersey has made considerable progress in closing the gap in skills between high and low-income kids, when they arrive on the first day of kindergarten.

Professor STEVEN BARNETT (Director, National Institute For Early Education Research, Rutgers University): There's no question you can make a big dent. And I think it's reasonable to think about eliminating half the achievement gap at the kindergarten door.

SOLOMON: Nobody is disputing Barnett's findings. But the state's resolve to close that gap may be crumbling under the weight of highest in the nation property taxes - which is the primary way the schools are funded - and massive cuts to state education funding that have hit suburban districts hardest.

State Senator MICHAEL DOHERTY (Republican, New Jersey): The fact is that, you know, it'd be nice to fund a lot of programs. But New Jersey is broke and the constitution does not require it.

SOLOMON: Michael Doherty, a Republican Senator from Warren, represents a large swath of suburban New Jersey where resentment toward the extra funding of low-income schools runs deep. He's proposing the preschools for poor kids be cut to half day, and the $300,000 saved be spent on K-through-12 education in the suburbs.

Doherty says he prefers the way most states collect an income tax that then funds school districts equally.

St. Sen. DOHERTY: But we don't do that in New Jersey. We collect it progressively and then we hand it out progressively on steroids. So for every penny that my towns get, other towns in urban areas are getting 40 bucks. So you tell me what planet on Earth where that would be fair.

SOLOMON: Schiarra says these districts don't have the property tax revenue to adequately support their schools. And half-day preschool is ineffective because working parents don't use it, even when it's free, because they'd have to leave work to pick up their children. So Schiarra says it's fair for the state to pay more for high-poverty schools, and it's money well spent to help children when they are very young.

Mr. DAVID SCHIARRA (Director, Education Law Center): This is probably one of the most effective education reforms we've done in New Jersey for disadvantaged kids in our poorest communities. It would be a tragedy if we now scaled this back.

SOLOMON: Schiarra is trying to patch a hole in a system that everyone agrees is broken. But changing the way New Jersey taxes its residents and funds its schools, would require both political parties to agree on a fix, and be willing to cooperate enough to move forward - and that hasn't happened here for a very long time.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.