Research continues to confirm that New Jersey’s investment in the pre-kindergarten program ordered in the landmark Abbott v. Burke case yields significant educational value. Children who participate in the program make substantial gains in early language, literacy and math skills, and there are marked improvements in urban children’s recent performance on the State’s fourth grade assessment. In just a few short years, Abbott pre-kindergarten has earned the support of parents, educators and policymakers.
Because the Abbott preschool program is so successful — and utilizes classrooms in public schools, Head Start programs and private child care centers — proponents of funding private schools with public education funds have implied that Abbott preschool is a “voucher” program, similar to Milwaukee’s program in which public funds offset the cost of religious, independent or other private schools.
Private schools that accept public funds under a voucher scheme are not publicly accountable for the use of the funds. They are not required to meet State public school standards on academic content and performance, or the accountability benchmarks set by the State under the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Further, religious schools are not bound by laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion and are free to reject students on this basis.
In sharp contrast, childcare and Head Start programs that choose to participate in the Abbott pre-k program must meet the State’s rigorous early education quality standards, and demonstrate accountability for both educational and fiscal performance – the same standards that apply to preschool programs in public schools.
Over sixty-five percent of the 40,000 Abbott three- and four-year-old children are enrolled in community-based programs — either private childcare or Head Start — with the remaining attending classes within district schools.
Abbott Preschool Rulings Allow Providers to Participate
In the 1998 Abbott V decision, the NJ Supreme Court ordered the State to provide three- and four-year-old children in urban, low-income school districts with a high-quality preschool education as part of its constitutional duty to provide “a thorough and efficient system of free public schools.” At the urging of Education Law Center, counsel to the Abbott schoolchildren, the Court granted the Commissioner of Education authority to allow Abbott districts to contract with private childcare and public Head Start programs in order to quickly serve as many pre-kindergarteners as possible. Two years later, in Abbott VI (2000), the Court clarified the requirements of the pre-k program and stressed that only licensed childcare providers and Head Start agencies that were willing and able to meet the Abbott pre-k quality standards were eligible to contract with Abbott districts to provide the pre-k program.
The Court in Abbott VI delineated the basic quality components of the Abbott pre-kindergarten program: a certified teacher and assistant teacher in each classroom; a maximum class size of fifteen; and a developmentally appropriate curriculum. These mandated standards apply to all Abbott pre-k classrooms, whether in public school districts, private childcare centers or Head Start agencies. Regardless of the setting, Abbott districts are responsible for ensuring that each child receives a high quality program in accordance with State standards.
Abbott Program Quality Standards
Public schools and community pre-k providers must comply with Department of Education (DOE) regulations implementing the Abbott rulings. The regulations obligate private pre-k providers to enter into a contract with the Abbott district for which it provides pre-k classrooms. The contract was developed by DOE and incorporates the Court’s quality standards and State regulations. Among other things, it requires community providers to:
- Comply with mandated qualifications for directors, teachers and teacher’s assistants and standards for class size and staff-child ratio.
- Offer a full-day, full-year program with a ten-hour day for 245 days per year, 180 days of which consist of six hours of comprehensive instruction meeting DOE requirements, and the remaining time meeting Department of Human Services’ childcare standards.
- Offer a DOE-approved curriculum designed to meet the State’s pre-k teaching and learning standards.
- Refrain from religious instruction.
- Prepare and submit to the Abbott district an annual pre-k program budget and quarterly expenditure reports, and make available to the school district and DOE all supporting documents and receipts.
- Participate in an annual program quality assessment by the Abbott district’s early childhood supervisor or master teacher and comply with improvement plans developed by the district for classrooms that do not meet a minimum score.
- Utilize DOE’s Early Learning Assessment System to appropriately and regularly support each child’s learning and developmental growth.
- Employ a family worker to collaborate with the Abbott district’s social worker and parent involvement specialist on the provision of social and health services and family involvement activities.
- Work with the district’s master teacher, who provides assistance to inexperienced teachers and coordinates professional development for the community provider’s staff.
Abbott districts, in turn, are required to help community providers develop budgets and provide high quality programs. Districts must monitor pre-k programs on a regular basis to ensure compliance with State regulations and the Abbott pre-k contract, and must terminate the contract if the provider violates these standards.
Abbott Pre-K is Not a Voucher Program
Pre-k providers who participate in the Abbott program must meet the same high standards as public schools; are highly regulated by the State; and essentially operate as an arm of the Abbott school district in delivering the high quality pre-k program. The program operates in marked contrast to a voucher program, under which state money flows to religious and private schools without regard to program quality, content or performance. Moreover, not all parents within a district have a choice about where to enroll their child; some Abbott districts deliver the pre-k program exclusively within the district, and some districts with a mixed delivery system assign students to a program setting. Finally, all Abbott pre-k funds are provided directly to the provider to support classrooms, in the same way that education funds are provided to public schools.
New Jersey’s pre-k delivery system is not unusual. Virtually all states with a public pre-k program recognize the value for families, children and communities of utilizing a mixed delivery system with a variety of providers, including for-profit and nonprofit childcare centers, Head Start agencies, religiously affiliated schools and public schools. Similar to New Jersey, almost all these states also regulate community providers and require them to meet state quality and curriculum standards and comply with state monitoring and program evaluation.
Prepared: May 9, 2007
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications