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Congressman faces questions from preschool kids

Associated Press

New 7th Congressional District Democrat Rep. Tom Malinowski has faced the press before, but never the kind he submitted to Wednesday.

"Do you kiss your girlfriend?" one preschool "journalist" asked during his visit to the Head Start Community Program.

Malinowski smiled and paused before answering. "Why yes, I do."

Malinowski arrived in the morning to meet with administrators of the nonprofit agency on Thompson Avenue. Founded in 1965, Head Start partners with families to provide comprehensive support for child development and school readiness, from prenatal through kindergarten.

The fun part of the visit was speaking with the children, who were prepared with notebooks, cameras and a play microphone to speak to "Congressman Tom" as part of a series of "Community Helpers" interviews they have done with other guests, representing many professions.

"The children have interviewed many community helpers and reported to their classmates and parents about different jobs in the community," Director Susan O'Donnell said. "They interviewed teachers. They interviewed me. They even interviewed our custodian."

The agency serves 245 children and their families at sites in Dover and Morristown, with a waiting list that nearly exceeds current enrollment.

O'Donnell and board president Bob Grant explained a twofold problem facing low-income families: a high federal bar set for poverty-income eligibility and the pending $15 minimum wage.

"Poverty levels are the same for all lower 48 states," O'Donnell said. "With the increase in minimum wage, without changes, many Head Start families will lose eligibility over time."

A family of four in states with a lower cost of living, such as Arkansas, can survive on the poverty-level income cap of $25,750 while qualifying for the program, Grant said. But in New Jersey, where a two-bedroom apartment can run $1,600 or more per month, a higher cap is needed to help families struggling to make ends meet.

"By comparison, the average household income in Morris County is $107,000," O'Donnell said. "We are proposing a possible solution would be for Head Start eligibility to be pegged at 200 percent of the poverty level."

"That's the same way SNAP limits are set," said Grant, who added he has made the same pitch to Morris County's other representative in Congress, 11th District Rep. Mikie Sherrill.

Malinowski, a Democrat who defeated Republican incumbent 7th District Rep. Leonard Lance in the 2018 midterm elections, said he has prioritized preschool education for years.

"Preschool is the best investment you can make in education in this country," he said. "If we start early, it benefits education at all levels."

His takeaways from the Head Start meeting?

"We have an issue in terms of eligibility standards that may be exacerbated by the increase in the minimum wage," Malinowski said. "That is something we will be looking into when I get back to D.C. next week, and working with my colleagues to fix it."

Head Start is in the process of expanding its pre-K collaboration with the Morris School District and will continue to offer preschool for Wharton students as well.

A new facility in the county-owned Central Avenue Complex in Parsippany will provide additional space in the year ahead.

Gov. Phil Murphy's budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2020 includes $68 million for preschool expansion. Several Morris County districts are now eligible to apply for public pre-k, including Dover, with an estimated universe of 478 3- and 4-year-olds who could benefit from full-day preschool programs.

Boonton, Morris School District, and Wharton Borough have already applied for and received preschool expansion funding.

For the 2019-2020 year, in addition to Dover, Mine Hill, Netcong and Rockaway will be eligible to apply for the upcoming round of funding in the New Jersey State Budget.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2Ohtw2Y

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Information from: Daily Record (Parsippany, N.J.), http://www.dailyrecord.com

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