An annual report from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University finds New Jersey again near the top by some measures in terms of public preschool – spending more per student than any state, and having the nation’s fourth-highest enrollment of 3-year-olds.

The 2021 state budget proposed two months ago by Gov. Phil Murphy sought to build on that by increasing spending on early childhood education by $83 million, helping launch programs in 30 more districts and bringing the three-year increase under Murphy to 32%.

So now advocates are worried about possible cuts to that – and most everything else in the spending plan – after the coronavirus wrecked tax collections and cast a cloud over state finances.

Steven Barnett, senior co-director of NIEER, said the impacts of the pandemic on New Jersey’s budget are tremendous but that spending on preschool ought to be protected when Murphy reworks the state budget. A new budget must be proposed by Aug. 25 and approved by the end of September.

“If we’re looking at what we have to preserve, we ought to be preserving our seed corn. These young children, this is the only future we have. That sounds trite, but it’s very real. There’s not another future,” Barnett said.

“If we miss investing in them now, there’s not a second chance,” Barnett said. “We know that most of the achievement gap that we worry about is there before kids walk through the kindergarten door. There’s no going back if we miss it.”

Some state spending on preschool programs isn’t discretionary, as it’s required under the Abbott vs. Burke rulings by the state Supreme Court. But that obligation has over time been expanded voluntarily to support other districts with high concentrations of low-income students.

“We know that families and young children are under increased stress, so their needs will have gone up,” Barnett said. “We know that we have record unemployment in New Jersey. We’re going to have more kids who are stressed in all sorts of ways and need to benefit from these programs.”

The latest evidence of the depth of New Jersey’s financial problems came when Fitch Ratings downgraded New Jersey’s credit rating Tuesday, to A-minus with a negative outlook. It said the state entered the current downturn in a weak position and that finances will “significantly weaken” further.

All states will suffer a fiscal shock, to one degree or another. Barnett said state-funded preschool funding is vulnerable to budget cuts and that the pandemic and looming economic crisis pose a considerable threat.

“We know in the last recession, enrollment, spending and quality standards were cut, and that spending impacts continued well after the economic recovery was underway,” he said. “In fact, the impact of those cuts continues.”

Barnett said classroom closures have already increased pressure on preschool programs. Young kids need hands-on activities and direct interaction with adults and other children, which makes remote learning a challenge.

“Such programs are cheap, but they have little impact on learning that truly matters. Technology is one important tool for early education, but computer programs are not a substitute for real preschool any more than the wooden puppet Pinocchio was a real boy,” he said.

The annual report said total public preschool enrollment in New Jersey in 2018-19 was 52,553, up 1,869 from a year earlier. State funding that year totaled $692 million, though spending per child adjusted for inflation was down $311 to $13,172 – still, the most in the nation except in Washington, D.C.

Allison Friedman-Krauss, an assistant research professor at Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research, said disparities between states are growing.

“We have four states – California, Texas, New York and New Jersey – that accounted for more than 50% of all state spending for preschool,” said Friedman-Krauss, who said those state enrolled around 41% of all students enrolled in public preschool programs.

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