Analysis of a National Model for High Quality Pre-K for Three- and Four-Year-Olds
To mark the 15th anniversary of the high quality Abbott preschool program, Dr. Danielle Farrie, Research Director at Education Law Center, has prepared a report on the state of the program.
"New Jersey is a national leader in preschool, and the high quality Abbott program helps frame the discussion in other states and on the federal level," said Dr. Farrie.
In 1998, the NJ Supreme Court, as part of the landmark Abbott v. Burke school finance litigation, issued the first judicial directive in the nation requiring a state to provide high quality, well planned preschool beginning at age three. In response, the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) and 31 high-poverty Abbott districts began implementing early education for all three- and four-year-olds, using private childcare providers, Head Start, and public school classrooms. Quality is ensured in all settings through mandated requirements, including teacher certification, small class sizes, age-appropriate curriculum, and supports for children and families.
The program - commonly called Abbott preschool - started in the 1999-2000 school year. Fifteen years later, there is clear and compelling evidence of the program's success. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has studied the program in-depth and found that children enrolled in Abbott preschool for two years carry their academic and social/emotional gains well into the elementary years.
"The Abbott preschool programs are among the best performing in the nation delivering increased achievement while lowering the overall costs of schooling by reducing grade repetition and unnecessary special education," said Dr. Steven Barnett, NIEER Director. "As this report makes clear the state can greatly benefit by renewing its commitment to pre-K in the Abbott districts while extending the opportunity for highly effective preschool education to even more of New Jersey's children."
Dr. Farrie's analysis also identifies several areas in need of improvement. In some Abbott districts, enrollment is not keeping pace with the growing universe of eligible children. This may be due to a lack of classroom capacity in some cases, while in other cases available seats are going unfilled. The report recommends several steps to eliminate under-enrollment, including the need for districts to step up outreach and recruitment efforts with support from NJDOE.
In 2008, NJ lawmakers decided to build upon the success of the program in the Abbott districts, by including in the state's weighted student formula - the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) - a directive to expand Abbott preschool to all at-risk children statewide over a five-year period. Unfortunately, successive, tight state budgets have stymied implementation of the expansion required by the SFRA law.
In the report, ELC strongly urges the Legislature to renew its commitment to expand preschool by allocating funding to begin implementation beyond the Abbott districts.
As Dr. Farrie stated, "We must make sure that all eligible three- and four-year-olds in the Abbott districts have the opportunity to take advantage of this highly successful program, and we need to extend the benefits of the program to all low-income children around the state. If we take this bold step, New Jersey will become the first state in the nation where all children in high poverty communities, and all low-income children elsewhere, will have access to well planned, high quality preschool beginning at age 3."