Teacher Lauren McBride sat on the floor of a classroom at the Casimer M. Dallago Early Childhood Education Center in Vineland, guiding a small group of 3- and 4-year-olds as they built a castle of wooden blocks.

“What shape blocks should we use here?” she asked, alternating between Spanish and English as needed. “Is this block longer or shorter than that one?” “This one doesn’t fit? How can we fix it?”

In another class, three students used droppers to measure colored water, counting the drops as they combined them to make new colors.

Two more donned aprons to operate their pizzeria, identifying toppings from cards with the word and photo and doling out play money to pay.

Outside students climbed a small “rock wall” and raced tricycles along a path.

The Dallago Center is a free public preschool, where play has a purpose and the school day is filled with movement, energy, fun and learning.

“This is the foundation for learning,” said Nancee Bleistine, principal of the center. “We have children who arrive and don’t even speak. Parental literacy is a huge issue. We are making a difference on so many different levels.”

Only about a third of all children in the state have access to free public preschool. A new legislative effort to expand the program has many supporters, but also many hurdles to overcome.

Nationally, public preschool is slowly expanding. In 2003, the first year of the State of Preschool Yearbook published by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, about 700,000 students in 40 states attended preschool at a cost of about $2.4 billion.

By 2014, 1.4 million children in 42 states attended public preschool at a cost of $6.2 billion.

Preschool’s detractors cite the cost, quality, insufficient research on its long-term effectiveness, whether the government should fund educating children that young and whether public preschool would put private preschools out of business.

A 2013 report by the Cato Institute said preschool may help, but the research to date does not support expanding existing government programs.

The Heritage Foundation criticized President Barack Obama’s 2013 funding for preschool expansion, saying the focus could instead be on improving the federal Head Start program.

In New Jersey, Americans for Prosperity Director Erica Jedynak said their focus is equity in funding. She pointed out that many public school districts don’t even have full-day kindergarten.

Linwood and Egg Harbor Township are among some 50 districts statewide that still only offer half-day kindergarten.

“If we’re going to look at this systematically, we should start with kindergarten,” Jedynak said.

Supporters say preschool works and can prevent even more costly problems in later grades, but even its most fervent supporter, W. Steven Barnett, director of the NIEER at Rutgers, wishes there were more research on preschool’s long-term effects. Since 2003, he has stressed that quality is crucial to effectiveness. But quality programs are also more expensive and a harder sell.

New Jersey spends more than $650 million per year on preschool for more than 51,000 children, and accountability for the program has largely fallen on Barnett and NIEER research. His last New Jersey report, in 2013, showed that former Abbott district preschoolers then in fifth grade were less likely to be held back a grade or require special education services. He’d like to do another update, if he could get the data, which the state Department of Education collects.

Barnett said he has been asking for the data but suspects the state just has higher priorities and not enough manpower. He said analyzing the data could save money in the long run.

“Considering how much money is already spent collecting the data, it would be a good idea to put some money into analyzing it,” he said.

New Jersey’s public preschool system is a hodgepodge of full-day and half-day programs for 3- and 4-year olds.

The former Abbott special-needs districts, including Vineland, Millville, Bridgeton and Pleasantville, have had full-day preschool since the 1997-98 school year, after the state Supreme Court made it one of the conditions in the Abbott vs. Burke legal decision. Statewide funding for the first year was about $288 million.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine promised to expand preschool to all low-income children, and the addition of 110 low-income districts increased funding to more than $600 million by 2010. Expansion stalled during the recession, but several legislators and advocates such as Pre-K Our Way have renewed the effort, requesting $110 million from the state Property Tax Relief Fund.

Per-student spending in 2014-15 averaged from $13,326 per student in the Abbott districts to as little as $3,614 per student in Early Launch to Learning Initiative districts. PreK Our Way advocates estimate it would take about $550 million to provide full-day programs to all eligible low-income children.

One proposal would partner school districts with private preschools, which would keep private schools open and save the cost of building new preschool centers.

Vineland is one of the partnership success stories, though it took several years. Bleistine said their success is based on building a partnership among teachers and administrators at the public and nine private sites.

Ruth Piatt, owner of Little Lamb Preschool, said it was a major adjustment to follow state rules and give up her autonomy, but the children have benefited from the additional resources the state can provide.

“Little Lamb is stronger because of it,” she said.

All Kids First welcomes children with huge colorful murals depicting popular stories. Founder and retired teacher Carol Deola describes rooms “rich with learning.” She has invested her own funds to add a stuffed animal safari and indoor gym.

“I wanted a site that children wanted to go to,” she said.

Teachers said they see dramatic progress. In the small, rural Woodbine school district, where children are in the same building from preschool through grade eight, teachers watch their students grow, blossom and sometimes stumble through their years of school.

Barnett has compared preschool’s long-term impact to racing in the Daytona 500. Preschool gives students a fast head start but doesn’t mean other obstacles won’t slow their progress to graduation.

Preschool teacher Kelly McGay said they had a new kindergarten teacher come in from another district and immediately notice how much more prepared the Woodbine children were for school. Nearby, two children “fished” for magnetic letters then matched them by upper and lower case.

“It’s still developmental,” she said of student learning. “But they are getting daily exposure to learning through play.”

Bleistine said it can be a challenge to convince parents to enroll their children so young, and some think it is going to be too much like traditional school. But if they visit and see the activities, they can be convinced.

Vineland teacher Brooke Smith has a child in the district preschool.

“My son comes home and says ‘I played today,’ but I know he was also learning,” she said. “I can see it.”

Contact: 609-272-7241

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Copy desk chief / comics blogger

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Press copy editor since 2006, copy desk chief since 2014. Masters in journalism from Temple University, 2006. My weekly comics blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback, appears Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com.

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