Abbott Preschools in Plainfield; the Straw Horse of Private vs. Public

I’d like to revisit a post from last week. In that post, “OSA [Opportunity Scholarship Act]: The False Dichotomy of Public and Private Schools,” I examined a statement by Julia Sass Rubin, spokesperson for Save Our Schools-NJ, which is lobbying against OSA and for public votes on new charters. In the statement Ms. Rubin said that OSA “would be funded directly from public school budgets. So it would absolutely take money out of the public school system to transfer to private and religious schools."

In that post I looked at her statement in the context of the full-day preschool programs offered in Abbott districts, where traditional public districts pay private and religious preschools to run early childhood education programs for 3-5 year-olds. I concluded that there wasn't that much difference between the proposal embedded in OSA and the NJ’s highly-regarded system of out-sourcing preschools for kids in Abbott districts.

In response to the post, Ms. Rubin commented,
As the Education Law Center has pointed out to you on numerous prior occasions, the publicly-funded pre-school program is tightly regulated and functionally run by the public school system. The private schools that would be the recipients of diverted public school dollars under the voucher scheme are completely unregulated -- lacking in standards and prone to abuse, exploitation and discrimination.
Okay. That’s fair. Our Abbott preschools are not “voucher schemes” but “tightly regulated and functionally run.” (Not sure how to square Ms. Rubin’s disdain for the NJ DOE’s ability to regulate charter schools and their deft touch with regulating preschools, but whatever.) Let’s look at these laudatory preschool programs in Plainfield, one of NJ's 31 improverished Abbott district.

In 2011 Plainfield Public Schools sent 1,433 children to 16 preschools. The total preschool budget is about $19.8 million, or about $13,840 per child per year. Recently the DOE’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance completed a fiscal review of four of these 16 preschools. Note that the reviews have no bearing on the curriculum of what may be stellar early childhood education programs.

The four preschools reviewed were Faheemah’s Child Care Center, Precious Steps Child and Development Center, King’s Daughters Day School, and B’s Nurturing Neighborhood. Fiscal irregularities were found at all four.

At Faheemah’s Child Care Center, described as “a non-profit organization owned by Faheemah El-Amin who serves as owner and full-time director,” Ms. El-Amin did not receive a salary for three quarters but instead paid her son the Director’s Salary. Rent for facilities wasn’t paid on time. Also, expenditure variances revealed that “the provider has not utilized current, accurate, complete, and reliable information. The use of inaccurate information impacts the fiscal component of the preschool education program.”

At Precious Steps Child and Development Center “DOE employees were compensated incorrectly,” teaching assistants were required to work a 50-hour work week (they’re supposed to follow the same contract provisions as Plainfield Public Schools), and a custodian received “unauthorized vendor payments.” According to the report,
The provider lacked the internal controls necessary to maintain accurate financial reporting of the DOE funded transactions.
At King’s Daughters Day School “the provider’s 2009-2010 budget planning worksheet and comparison to the actual expenses revealed an expenditure variance of $20,274.00” and “the provider appears to be non-compliant with contractual staffing standards…”

At B’s Nurturing Neighborhood, run by Beatrice Martin and her son William, there were two general ledgers that didn’t reconcile with each other. Ms. Martin holds two mortgages which expired in June 2008, and the payment invoice submitted to the district “did not reconcile to any other supporting mortgage loan agreement.” Also, “the district expressed serious concern related to the documentation to support the teachers’ and the teacher assistants’ health coverage.”

What does this all mean? Simply that the distinction drawn by Ms. Rubin and Education Law Center between the use of private/parochial preschools for young children in Abbott districts -- "functional" and "tightly regulated" -- and the use of private/parochial schools for older kids -- "a voucher scheme" -- is not so meaningful. Or at least not in Plainfield.

That’s not an argument for or against OSA, but merely a recognition that NJ's public education system already draws on a mix of private and public resources to educate children and some are more functional than others. The distinction betwen private and public institutions to educate children in NJ is not meaningful, merely a straw horse straddled by foes of school choice. Our energies could be put to better use by accepting the complexities of a spectrum of options potentially available to poor children in districts like Plainfield.

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