Lawmakers are forging ahead with plans to expand early childhood education in New Jersey, including a statewide requirement for full-day kindergarten.

More than 90 percent of school districts with kindergartens have full-day programs already, but 42 districts don’t – including some big ones, such as Cherry Hill, West Windsor-Plainsboro and Edison. Another big district, Woodbridge, is already switching to full-day kindergarten in September.

Under state Sen. Shirley Turner’s bill, S1055, the 42 districts with half-day programs would have to have full-day kindergarten by September 2020. Three would be required to start a year sooner, in 2019 – Egg Harbor, Monroe in Gloucester County and Lopatcong.

“That is a great investment because it really provides huge dividends in the long run,” said Turner, D-Mercer.

At a Senate Education Committee hearing where the bill advanced, representatives from education advocacy groups didn’t dispute that but said districts might not have the room in their classrooms or budgets. Either could force them to referendums, asking voters to approve extra taxes, because the proposal doesn’t currently come with money attached.

“I don’t think any district has half-day kindergarten because they don’t desire to do full-day kindergarten. It’s a simple matter of the economics of that local district,” said Christopher Jones of the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“Unfortunately, we need the capital to invest,” said Betsy Ginsburg, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools. “If we don’t have the capital to invest, the investment can never pay off.”

A parent on the Monroe school board, Jill DeMaio, told senators it would cost her Middlesex County district $1.5 million to buy temporary classrooms needed for full-day kindergarten – equal to nearly half the $3.3 million in state aid the district receives.

“In short, this bill would be great if accompanied by full funding for its implementation,” said Melanie Schulz, director of government relations for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “Without funding, it would have significant adverse effects on school districts.”

The full-day kindergarten proposal is part of a broader focus on early childhood education being pursued by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, who is the education committee chairwoman. Other bills approved and sent to the budget committee include plans for a standalone Department of Early Childhood (S698) and a loan program to encourage private investment in preschool programs (S696).

“The creation of the department and the focus is to really get to a final destination of universal preschool in the state of New Jersey,” Ruiz said.

In an acknowledgement of the conflict between ambitious goals and limited cash, the proposals include the concept of social impact bonds that repay donors who support an early childhood loan program by giving them a percentage of the savings generated through having fewer kids in need of special education or repeating grades.

Morganne Firmstone, director of advocacy and public affairs for the advocacy group JerseyCAN, said studies suggest the state could save $850 million.

“It can be difficult or nearly impossible for some communities to secure new or additional funding for early education, which is why we think this program is critically important,” Firmstone said.

Programs and services funded by the social impact bonds could include preschool, child nutrition, health, early intervention and home visitation.

The bill calls for a pilot program in the state Economic Development Authority.

The transition committee that studied education issues for Gov. Phil Murphy recommended a modest increase in early childhood education funding in the 2019 budget he will introduce in early March. It said it could be funded in part by philanthropic contributions or social impact bonds.

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