TRENTON, NJ—The State Senate has advanced a controversial bill that would allow school districts to turn unused classroom space into child care centers for infants as young as six weeks old.

Bill S3330, also referred to as the Teddy Bear Academy bill, passed 24-8 for its third and final passage in the Senate.

Sponsored by Sen. Dawn Addiego [D-Evesham], the bill was introduced to save the Teddy Bear Academy, a child care center operated out of Marlton Middle School in Burlington County. The program is scheduled to close this June after Department of Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet upheld an administrative law judge decision that ruled the school district was operating outside its authority in allowing children from outside the school district to be enrolled.

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The bill will allow public school districts to use unused classroom space for a child daycare center open to children as young as six weeks old,  the children of school district employees whether they live within or outside of the school district and, if space permits, children who reside outside of the school district.

Proponents of the bill say it allows for school districts who have experienced both a decline in enrollment and a decline in state funding to be creative in finding additional sources of revenue.

However, opponents argue the legislation will raise taxes in communities statewide, eliminate tens of thousands of jobs in the private sector and create a landscape of shuttered child care centers across New Jersey. Moreover, they questioned why a sweeping state bill is being considered just to help one child care center in Addiego's legislative district, the Teddy Bear Academy, at Marlton Middle School.

On Thursday, Sen. Robert Singer [R-Lakewood] expressed his concern over the bill prior to voting no.

“It’s always been my belief that the public sector fills in gaps that the private sector can’t do,” Singer said. “In this case, childcare has been a major factor in the private sector … Now they will be competing with the school system.”

“This is just against small business people in many cases … going to cost the taxpayers more money, and put people out of business,” Singer said.

In a recent op-ed published on nj.com, the vice president of government affairs for the New Jersey Child Care Association, Guy Falzarano, called the bill “ill-conceived,” and said it would jeopardize 87,000 jobs in the state  — a large percentage held by women — and destroy an industry that generates over $100 million in property taxes each year.

“Employment in a child care center is a draw for women, especially those who are new to the workforce or need a reliable job with consistent hours,” Falzarano wrote. “The child care industry represents six percent of the total female workforce in the state. This proposed legislation is a direct attack on this profession, putting into question the future for these employees who currently enjoy a steady paycheck and a pleasurable work environment.”

Falzarano also argued that school districts are not equipped to provide the latest technologies and infrastructure used in the child care industry, which, according to Falzarano, serves 350,000 children in the state.

“The staff at child care centers are specifically trained to work with babies and toddlers, from changing diapers, to wiping noses, to cuddling. This is not to be administered by government, through a Board of Education. Schools are focused on education; child care centers are experts at child care,” Falzarano wrote.

The bill’s sponsors, Addiego and Sen. Troy Singleton [D-Moorestown], don’t agree.

“This idea that we are somehow shrinking the market of private daycare operators, the numbers don’t belie that,” Singleton said prior to Thursday’s vote in the Senate. “There is not a shortage of need, last time I checked. I don’t think there is a shortage of babies being born. But what there is a shortage of is reliable, effective and economical opportunities and resources for folks to be able to fit those needs and meet those needs for childcare services.”

Addiego backed up Singleton after the bill was passed.

“To say that we’re going to be putting people out of business isn’t true,” Addiego said, citing the 2017 study “No Room for Babies: Center-Based Infant-Toddler Child Care in Short Supply,” published by Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

According to the study, more than 207,000 infants and toddlers depend on some type of child care. However, there are only 55,600 licensed centers in the Garden State, leaving more than 150,000 children without the option of center-based care.

Along with those numbers, Addiego also cited another of the study’s findings: the biggest need for child care centers are in areas of the state with less population, such as Burlington, Atlantic, Ocean, Cape May and Cumberland counties.

The bill now moves to the General Assembly, where most of the prime sponsors reside in South Jersey counties, including Camden. 

Since its introduction in January, the bill has been amended to require any child care services offered by a school district meet the standards established in the Manual of Requirements for Child Care Centers by the Department of Children and Families, and to require the tuition charged by the school district to be within the range of the tuition charged by licensed child care centers located within the county of the school district.

Addiego said Thursday that she hopes that once the bill goes over to the General Assembly, it will go right to the appropriations committee, where she said it will be amended to address licensing and school nursing concerns.

“Our whole goal was to create as much a level playing field as reasonably possible,” Addiego said.

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