Almost 20 years ago, the New Jersey Supreme Court paved the way for one of the state’s greatest educational successes: a nationally recognized public preschool program with a proven record of improving the lives of disadvantaged children. In its 1998 Abbott V ruling, the Court ordered the state to provide “well-planned, high-quality” preschool for young children in New Jersey’s poorest communities, describing preschool as critical for the “attainment of a thorough and efficient education once a child enters regular public school.”23 Although that initial ruling called for the implementation of preschool by the 1999–2000 school year, only after several subsequent court decisions did the state fully commit to the standards necessary for a quality program.
Those standards include a number of key elements: small class sizes, well-prepared teachers, a research-based curriculum, and a continuous improvement system. Although the program relies on a diverse delivery model—classes take place in public schools, at Head Start sites, and in community child-care centers—all providers must meet the same rigorous standards. And, by providing not one but two years of full-day preschool beginning at age three, the program increases the benefits for children.
Those benefits are significant, as decades of research, both nationally and in New Jersey, have repeatedly shown. An aligned and coordinated system of educational supports delivered in early childhood, defined as birth through third grade, can pay dividends throughout a child’s school years and beyond. Children who attend high-quality preschool are better prepared for kindergarten, develop stronger social and emotional skills, are less likely to require special education services or to repeat a grade, and are more likely to graduate from high school.24 A longitudinal study of New Jersey’s state-funded preschool program, conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, tracked program participants through fifth grade and found that those with two years of high-quality preschool continued to perform better in language, literacy, and math. They were less likely to repeat a grade or to need special education services, potentially saving taxpayers significant sums. Indeed, the two-year effects were large enough to close about half the achievement gap separating low-income children from their more advantaged peers.25
By 2008, when SFRA became law, the state-funded preschool program enrolled nearly 50,000 three-and four-year-old children in 31 low-income communities. Building on the program’s success, the law called for preschool to be expanded to all the state’s at-risk children, defined as those with family incomes low enough to qualify them for free- or reduced-price school meals. Districts with at least 40% at-risk children would be funded to provide preschool to all three- and four-year-olds, regardless of income; districts with lower levels of poverty would receive funding only for at-risk children. A six-year phase-in was planned, with program implementation to begin in the 2009–10 school year after an initial year of planning.
Unfortunately, the fiscal constraints imposed by recession and recovery pushed preschool down the state’s list of priorities. Although four additional pilot districts did receive preschool funding soon after SFRA was enacted, the full preschool expansion that the law had promised was never funded. More than 35,000 young children lost the opportunity to start kindergarten with a strong foundation, and preschool remains out of reach for thousands of New Jersey’s three- and four-year-olds. Flat funding for
education also hurt the original preschool programs, with districts struggling to provide the level of quality necessary to maximize the benefits that preschool can produce. The $25 million appropriation for preschool included in the state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, 2017 was a promising first step but included little time for planning. School districts had to submit their preschool plans by mid-August 2017 for funding in the 2017-18 school year. Twenty-nine districts applied and 26 received funding for a total of $19.4 million. Governor Christie took the remaining $5.6 million to fund his initiative to address the opioid crisis.
Experts estimate that full funding of preschool expansion under the SFRA will cost $600 million. That price tag may seem daunting, but high-quality preschool is a sound long-term investment for the state, a crucial support for disadvantaged children, and a key element of education reform.
Adjust per-pupil funding rates according to the SFRA to restore full funding for current preschool programs and to ensure adequate funding for expanded programs.
Commit to implementing and fully funding the preschool expansion called for in SFRA, beginning in school year 2018-19 with full implementation by 2022.
Continue the high-quality program standard and delivery approach that has been essential to New Jersey’s preschool success.