How Preschool Works in New Jersey

Takeaway: Despite having relatively high-quality offerings, New Jersey’s public child care is more expensive on a child-by-child basis than that of any other state, while still enrolling less than a third of eligible kids. While this itself may pose a problem for families, the state adds to the challenge of finding good care with its confusing and poorly-structured resources, some of which provide outdated information. Even the up-to-date and accurate information on family child care homes is only available in an unsearchable 50-page scanned PDF, written in legalese, that is difficult to grasp without close study. Child care centers in the state are regulated and licensed; home-based caregivers must register, but these operate with relatively little oversight.

Overview

New Jersey’s child care centers are overseen by the state’s Department of Children and Families. The state’s preschool programs are of relatively high quality, but families may struggle to access both information about the programs and the programs themselves. Home-based care takes two forms: unregulated and unlicensed care in which an individual provides supervision and possibly transportation to children for payment, and registered (but not licensed) group home care, in which an individual or group of individuals looks after a group of three to six kids for payment.

In 2014, New Jersey received one of 18 preschool development grants from the federal government — this $17.5 million award helped the state fund early childhood education for more than 2,300 kids across 19 communities. This funding may be on the chopping block, however, due to $1 billion in education-related spending cuts that Congress is currently considering (as of August 2015). It probably goes without saying, but this would directly affect child care for thousands of families — some of whom have only just been able to access the state system for the first time.

While acknowledging that New Jersey has one of the finest public preschool systems in the nation, the nonpartisan nonprofit organization Pre-K Our Way bemoans the fact that it serves only 30 percent of eligible children. Likewise, the Education Law Center determined that 39,341 kids met the criteria for state-funded preschool in 2014 but lacked facilities to attend. Adding to the state’s problems is that it spent more per child (during the 2013–2014 school year) than any other state in the country, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

New Jersey’s rather confusing licensing standards are difficult to find, as it seems this responsibility has shifted from one branch of state government to another within the past decade. Despite this switch, old websites with outdated information seem still to exist without any mention of those that have supplanted them. Those regulations currently in effect are set to expire in August 2016.

Information on registration and licensing is available primarily through a series of complicated legal documents issued by the state, several of which are unsearchable scanned images more than 50 pages long.

New Jersey’s database search is limited and outdated, as the search can only be filtered by county and child capacity. Results pages display only contact information, age range, and child capacity. It only applies to licensed programs; there is no search tool for registered programs, which are overseen by an array of various community-based organizations.

Center-Based Care

The state defines a child care center as any program that provides care to more than five kids under age 13. Daytime programs cannot be responsible for kids for any more than 12 consecutive hours, while nighttime programs cannot care for them for any more than 16 consecutive hours.

All licensed facilities must be inspected for dangerous conditions, staff/child interactions, and management policies and procedures once every three years — a rate less frequent than in many other states. Licensed facilities must provide parents with information regarding visitation rights, licensing requirements, and complaint histories. Unlike in other states, violations records are not available online; rather, parents must request those from individual providers, who should — in theory — make those available. Programs must also have policies in place addressing health care procedures, child release policies, and child discipline procedures.

Directors are required to have either a bachelor’s degree and one year of managerial or supervisory experience (the law does not specify whether this experience has to be related to child care), or they must hold a master’s “in any field related to children or business.”

Early childhood education programs must also employ a head teacher. This individual must have: a master’s in education and “six credits and one year of experience”; or a master’s in any discipline other than education and “nine credits and one year of experience”; or a bachelor’s in education, psychology, health care, nursing, or anything related to child development and “six credits and two years of experience”; or an elementary, nursery, preschool, or special needs education teaching certification and “six credits and two years of experience”; or a bachelor’s degree in an unrelated field and either “nine credits and three years of experience or six credits and four years of experience”; or a bachelor’s in a field unrelated to education and “nine credits and three years of experience or six credits and four years of experience”; or the Montessori equivalent of a bachelor’s; or an endorsement as head teacher from the state Registry for Childhood Professionals.

Child care centers must also employ at least one group teacher. This individual must have: an associate’s degree in a child care-related field; or six college credits in early childhood education or development and at least nine college credits in education, psychology, health care, nursing, or a related field; or a Child Development Associate credential; or a Certified Child Care Professional certificate; or an endorsement as a group teacher from the New Jersey Registry for Childhood Professionals; or a New Jersey Infant/Toddler credential through Professional Impact New Jersey. The state also provides a set of (if you can believe it) even more detailed guidelines for group teachers currently working their way to a relevant degree or certification. You may find it on page 31 of the linked document above.

Children are required to be supervised at all times and personnel must be trained in the “method of keeping track of children.”

The state mandates that child care centers meet certain staff-to-child ratios. Any one caregiver may look after up to four children under 18 months. For kids from 18 months to 2.5 years, staff must maintain a ratio of 1:6. For children from 2.5 years to 4 years, a ratio of 1:10 is appropriate. For 4-year-olds, staff must maintain a 1:12 ratio. And for kids 5 or older, any one staff member may care for up to 15 children. When kids are resting or sleeping, these ratios change: For kids under 2.5, staff must maintain a ratio of 1:10; for kids older than 2.5, a ratio of 1:20 is acceptable.

Centers with groups of children larger than 180 must employ two head teachers and two group teachers. Those caring for more than 300 kids must have three head teachers and three group teachers on staff. Those programs with more than 420 kids enrolled must employ four head teachers and four group teachers. For additional details regarding mixed-age groups, or groups including children with special needs or ambulatory or other physical disabilities, or social-emotional disorders, see the “Staff Requirements” section on page 18 of the state’s manual for such programs.

Licensed programs should implement curricula that encourage growth and development (in areas like problem-solving, language, and curiosity), motor coordination, positive guidance and discipline, and family involvement. Parents have the right to visit a center at any time, and a center’s administration should provide parents and guardians with a copy of the Information to Parents document that outlines additional rights and responsibilities.

Home-Based Care

Family child care homes are allowed to accommodate groups of up to five kids (unrelated to the provider) below the age of 13. Three of the provider’s children may also be present during care, bringing the maximum total to eight.

These providers, though unlicensed, can choose to voluntarily register with the Child Care Resource and Referral Center. This is a network of mostly county-based community organizations (every county has at least one, and some have more) that work in conjunction with state agencies to regulate care.

Such individuals must provide character references, must be physically and mentally healthy, must disclose criminal convictions, and must subject anyone 14 or older who lives in their home to a background check. Providers who opt to register must also agree to a home inspection and review covering number and ages of children in their care, health and safety, nutrition, activities, caregiver supervision, record-keeping, and parental communication.

The executive director or administrator of such a home must have a bachelor’s degree or three years of experience in a managerial or supervisory capacity in human services, child care, child development, child education, business, social work, or nursing. Other staff members must have an associate’s degree in one of the fields mentioned above, or a high school diploma and three years of relevant experience.

A single individual can care for three children under the age of 1, or four children under the age of 2 (provided no more than two of these kids are under 1). In any other cases or combinations, two caregivers must be present.

Just as with center-based care in the state, parents have the right to visit a family home unannounced, though they may be denied access to areas of the home that are off-limits to children. Providers must give all parents and guardians a copy of the Information to Parents document that explains their rights and responsibilities.

Unlicensed Care

In-home care is a form of unlicensed care that takes place in the child’s home. In-home care can incorporate other services — housekeeping, cooking, or transportation — along with child care. These programs are not regulated or licensed by the state.

License-exempt programs are unregulated by the state and are permitted to operate without oversight. Such programs include those run by private-school employees, those overseen by public school boards, religious instruction programs, youth camps (though they must register and be licensed under the Youth Camp Safety Act), and special activity programs (4-H, Girl and Boy Scouts, sports, arts and crafts, music, and dance, among others).

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