Data and Friends: The Key to Improving and Strengthening NJ’s Early Childhood Systems

With the New Jersey’s election of a new governor less than a year ago, Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) saw this leadership change as an opportunity to expand and improve programs for young children and their families.

We knew however, that while our new Governor, Phil Murphy, had repeatedly stated on the campaign trail that he supported programs for young children, there was a big gap between support and actually getting those programs implemented so that children could actually benefit from them.

ACNJ decided to focus its advocacy efforts in two areas: 1) Increasing the number of 3- and 4-year olds with access to high quality preschool; and 2) Increasing the child care reimbursement rate for infants. To achieve these goals, we employed two strategies: effectively using data and engaging our friends.

Preschool:  Even before election day, ACNJ recognized that whoever won the race would need some type of guidance or “roadmap” on how to strengthen and support the infrastructure necessary in providing high quality preschool to more 3- and 4- year olds. That’s when working with our friends became important.  ACNJ, along with our partners at the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) convened a group of early childhood stakeholders to develop that roadmap.  Working with both partners who were involved with the initial preschool implementation and those from schools and communities that would benefit from preschool expansion, the group was able to develop a plan to assist the new administration in preparing for and implementing and expanded preschool program. The roadmap included 10 recommendations, including how to address funding, facilities, the workforce, governmental oversight and data-sharing, to name a few.

Once the election was over, ACNJ and its partners began to share the report with those individuals who are now in leadership positions in the new administration.  While much work remains, the roadmap provides key policymakers with a common goal and a way of getting there.

This plan became more than ideas in a report when the new Governor called for an additional $83 million for preschool, including $53 million in new dollars to expand the state’s nationally recognized program and provide additional funding to existing programs. The existing districts are the original Abbott districts and four other districts that were able to expand their preschool programs in 2008. Since that time, these districts received an inadequate amount of state aid to provide a critical high level of quality. There are still funding issues but this provided some much-needed assistance. ACNJ worked with its partners, including PreK Our Way, a non-partisan campaign aimed at increased state preschool funding, to make sure that those dollars remained in the final budget. And they did.

One challenge remained. The funding was secured after June 30th and the programs were required to be up and running by September. Eligible school districts had to develop plans, have them approved and open the preschool classrooms by the beginning of school. Needless to say, some of the districts were skittish about taking on such a big task in such a short period of time. ACNJ moved quickly, reaching out to districts with whom it had relationships and urging them to apply for the funding so that their preschoolers could benefit.  ACNJ again worked with its partners from NIEER to help districts improve their chances of benefiting from the additional funding by developing strong preschool plans. During the first week of September young children in 31 additional districts began benefiting from high quality preschool!

Child Care: One major area left out of the new Governor’s priorities was to help low-income families have better access to quality child care, especially for babies. Except for a very small increase last year of approximately $1 per child, per day, the child care subsidy reimbursement rate has remained flat for the past 10 years. While the reimbursement rate is too low for all age categories, there is no category more affected by the low rate than infants. Of the 44,000 children whose families rely on the subsidy, approximately 5,000 are infants between the ages of birth to 18 months.
 

Currently, the subsidy rates for infants and toddlers are the same in NJ --$165 per week, or slightly more than $4.00 per hour for a 40-hour work-week, and $3.30 per hour for a 50-hour work week.  While this rate is too low for both age groups, it is particularly low for infants as the cost of caring for such young children is high.  As a result, center-based programs cannot afford to take care of babies and throughout the state, there are child care deserts—communities with little or no center-based care who accept very young children.

ACNJ recognized the need for education and an “ask”. ACNJ developed Infant Child Care Desert Fact Sheets for each legislative district, so that legislators could see in black-and-white, how the communities they represented had little or no care for its youngest children.  Armed with this information, ACNJ met with staff from the Governor’s Office as well as the new Commissioner of Human Services to impress the need for a decoupling of the infant and toddler rates and ask for additional funding, beginning with the infant rate.

Lastly, as there were no additional funds in the proposed FY 2019 state budget, ACNJ worked with two legislators whose communities were struggling with a lack of care for infants on a $20 million budget resolution to increase the infant child care subsidy rate.

Unfortunately, the final budget did not include additional dollars, but all was not lost, as our advocacy efforts did have an impact on policymakers.

An estimated $15 million was appropriated in the state fiscal year 2018 budget for the first child care subsidy rate increase in 10 years.  While all centers receiving subsidy reimbursements benefited from a 1-4 percent increase, those participating in NJ’s QRIS system, Grow NJ Kids, particularly those serving infants, saw the highest subsidy increases, including a 24 percent increase for infants in a “five star” program.

Also, recognizing that infants require more care than toddlers, the state separated the infant child care subsidy rate from the toddler rate. Lastly, there is currently movement towards federal child care dollars being used to provide additional dollars for the child care subsidy for infants and to strengthen the state’s tiered reimbursement rate system.

When it comes to preschool and child care, New Jersey remains a work in progress. But with effective use of data and partners, ACNJ’s advocacy efforts are moving policy change in the right direction for young children.

Cynthia Rice, Senior Policy Analyst
Advocates for Children of New Jersey

(October 10, 2018)