A roadmap for universal Pre-K runs through New Jersey

President Biden’s American Families Plan includes a long-overdue call for universal preschool.  To those of us who have labored in the states to expand access and ensure quality in early education for our vulnerable youngsters, the president’s proposal for a robust federal role is welcome news indeed.

In developing their plan, the Biden administration and Congress need look no further than New Jersey, where state-funded preschool has been rolling out across the Garden State for two decades. Today, the Abbott Preschool Program, serving over 50,000 3- and 4-year olds, stands as a pathbreaking model for the delivery of early education, proven effective in reducing pre-kindergarten learning gaps for children in high-poverty, racially isolated communities.

Preschool in New Jersey emerged through the Abbott v. Burke lawsuit, a challenge to inadequate funding in urban school districts, including Newark, Jersey City and Camden. After finding the state’s finance formula unconstitutional, the New Jersey Supreme Court in the 1990s pressed lawmakers to enact reforms, including funding for research-proven programs for students in high poverty communities. In 1998, the court in Abbott became the first in the nation to expand the right to education to pre-kindergarten children, convinced that “preschool for 3- and 4-year olds will have a significant and substantive impact on academic achievement in both early and later school years.”   

In its order, the court allowed the state and school districts to utilize existing private child care providers and Head Start programs, along with public schools, to create a mixed-delivery system of preschool classrooms. Many were concerned that this type of arrangement would spark a new entrepreneurialism in public education — that private providers would attempt to game the system to maximize profit.

But the court addressed the issue head-on. It made clear that only those private providers “capable and willing” of meeting uniform state preschool standards under contract with districts could participate in the program and receive state funding. And those standards are among the most rigorous in the nation: classes of no more than 15, staffed by a state-certified preschool teacher, using a developmentally appropriate curriculum linked to the state’s K-12 public school standards. Private providers also must agree to district oversight and program evaluation to ensure performance, and the state retains enforcement authority to ensure effective and efficient use of program funding. 

In return, participating private providers and Head Start programs receive substantial state funds to upgrade their programs, improve teacher training and salaries, and deliver the quality early education needed to prepare children for kindergarten. 

As expected, knitting together from scratch child care, Head Start and public schools into a cohesive district-wide program serving children from impoverished neighborhoods proved to be no easy task. Given these sectors have little or no history of collaboration, implementation of Abbott Preschool involved encountering — and overcoming — numerous hurdles along the way. 

The first major bump occurred right at the start. Then-Gov. Christine Todd Whitman attempted to comply with the court’s mandate by simply “deputizing” existing, private child care providers as preschools with almost no additional funding, support or oversight. But advocates successfully pushed back on a plan that would have sent public funds to privately-run and unaccountable classrooms of 25 or more, with untrained and underpaid teachers, no aides or support, and no educational program tied to the public schools.

Another key to success was the move in 2008, blessed by the court, to fund Abbott Preschool through the state’s public school funding formula. This funding approach allows for more year-to-year stability in individual program and district budgets, giving the public schools and private providers the breathing room necessary to build the core elements of a quality program over time, especially improving the preschool teacher workforce. It also facilitated a comparable pay scale for teachers working in both public schools and private centers. All of these issues remain huge barriers across many states. Preschool programs, public and private, are not only underfunded but often must compete for funds every year through a traditional grants process.

By 2013, the Abbott Preschool Program had served enough children to generate hard evaluation data. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found that, among children who attended two years of Abbott Preschool, standardized test scores improved, and the achievement gap narrowed by 20-40 percent through the fifth grade. 

President Biden is right. To boost education attainment in the United States, all children must be afforded the opportunity to attend well-planned, high-quality preschool. Congress must bring its full weight behind extending the right to public education to the nation’s 3- and 4-year-olds, with an initial focus on poor children who now enter kindergarten already behind their more affluent peers. 

The road for Congress as it begins work on the president’s bold proposal for preschool runs through New Jersey.

David Sciarra is the executive director of Education Law Center (ELC), a national nonprofit that promotes educational equity through coalition building, litigation support, policy development, communications, and action-focused research.

Leigh Dingerson is a freelance writer and co-author (with Sciarra) of the recent ELC report, “From Courthouse to Statehouse — and Back Again: The Role of Litigation in School Funding Reform.”

Tags Early childhood education Head Start Joe Biden Pre-kindergarten preschool

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