Murphy promises expansion to universal pre-K in New Jersey

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy talks to three and four year old students in a pre-K class at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in Palisades Park, N.J. Murphy toured the school before announcing plans to plans to provide universal pre-K for all families in New Jersey. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy talks to three and four year old students in a pre-K class at the Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021, in Palisades Park, N.J. Murphy toured the school before announcing plans to plans to provide universal pre-K for all families in New Jersey. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Story updated at 5:15 p.m.

Gov. Phil Murphy says New Jersey will institute universal pre-Kindergarten across the state for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

He also announced $17 million awarded to 19 school districts to establish or expand pre-K programs. The bulk of the funds will go to districts in South Jersey. At least a third of the money will go to three districts in Ocean County: Jackson Township, Ocean Gate, and Stafford Township.

Murphy made the announcement, after visiting a couple of classrooms, from Dr. Charles Smith Early Childhood Center in Palisades Park, Bergen County.

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He said the pandemic has made it clear that having access to high quality pre-K can build a foundation for lifelong learning.

“Teaching children skills they will use for the rest of their lives and sending them on a path toward successful and fulfilling careers,” the governor said. “Quite plainly, education in general and pre-K in particular is one of our best opportunities to close the achievement gap for students who come from low-income and disadvantaged communities.”

Murphy has increased state funding for pre-K since he took office in 2018 by 35%. Practically speaking, that’s 9,000 seats across 140 school districts that have either established or expanded programs. Thursday’s pledge will expand the availability of early childhood education.

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So far in the state, 140 of New Jersey’s roughly 600 districts have state-funded pre-K programs. It’s unclear how long the expansion will take, and Murphy didn’t specify a timeline.

He said has tasked the state Department of Education with making a plan to meet the goal.

Murphy, a Democrat, is running for reelection this year.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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