Will New Jersey short-change its youngest students once again? That's the concern from groups pushing for expansion of state-funded preschool — a move that was promised nearly a decade ago but never actually happened.

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As state lawmakers determine their financial priorities during budget season, and may also tackle the issue of inequities in the school funding formula, a multi-million dollar campaign is underway from Pre-K Our Way, a New Jersey nonprofit devoted to expanding access to the state's high-quality public preschool program.

Currently, only 35 districts have access to it, according to spokesman Sam Crane, despite a 2008 state law to expand the program to more low-income communities. Crane said more than 100 communities are eligible for the program but are still shut out.

"Fifty thousand children have been waiting every year since 2008 for this expansion," Crane told New Jersey 101.5. "Our goal is to get that law implemented in the next year and a half."

Crane said 2017, a year featuring a gubernatorial race in New Jersey, is a "great time" to hammer the issue. The campaign has launched digital and TV advertisements to spark awareness among the public.

"These are the youngest New Jerseyans," Crane said of preschoolers. "These are our future and it's time that we start to invest again in our younger children and give them a head start on school success and on their life."

Funding for schools in Gov. Chris Christie's 2018 budget proposal, including preschool, was essentially flat. But he challenged Democratic lawmakers to revamp the state's funding formula.

"What makes this year different to me is that I think there's much stronger support for preschool among state leaders and also people in communities who would benefit from it," said Cecilia Zalkind, president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

The Democratic leaders of the state Senate and Assembly recently discussed the importance of high-quality preschool during school funding hearings.

"We must continue to stress that preschool is an important tool for our state and needs to be funded," Zalkind said. This year's state budget — once again, it short-changed young children and I think an investment in preschool is long overdue."

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Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.

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