A conference hosted and sponsored by ETS on March 14 celebrated the success of New Jersey’s groundbreaking Abbott Preschool program 20 years after a ruling in the landmark Abbott v. Burke lawsuit ordered the Commissioner of Education to provide “well-planned, high quality” early education to all three- and four-year-olds residing in the state’s urban school districts.

Along with ETS, the conference was co-sponsored by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the National Institute for Early Education and Education Law Center.

David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and counsel to the plaintiff school children in Abbott v. Burke, delivered the following remarks to open the conference:

May 21, 1998. What happened on that date twenty years ago is why we are gathered here today.

On that day, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued its fifth ruling in the Abbott v. Burke school funding lawsuit.

A year earlier, in Abbott IV, the Court ordered the State to increase K-12 aid in the 31 urban or “Abbott” districts to the level spent in successful affluent districts, establishing “parity” in general education funding.

The next year – 1998 — in Abbott V, the Court, based on evidence developed in a special trial, directed the State to fund and implement a package of K-12 “supplemental” programs to address the impact of concentrated poverty in the Abbott districts. The Court also directed the State to fund repairs and replacement of dilapidated school buildings.

These judicial orders standing alone were unprecedented. But the Court went even further.

The road to today’s celebration of Abbott Preschool began with these words from the Justices:

“This Court is convinced that pre-school for three- and four-year-olds will have a significant and substantial positive impact on academic achievement in both early and later school years.”

The Court then issued a directive that reverberated in Trenton and across the nation: the Commissioner of Education must require all urban districts to provide “well planned, high quality” preschool for all three- and four-year-olds as expeditiously as possible, or by the start of the 1999-2000 school year.

As lawyers know, the Abbott V order represents a watershed legal ruling – the first in the nation to require preschool as an essential element of a child’s right to education guaranteed in every state constitution.

But it also set in motion a profound sea-change in every aspect of early childhood education policy and practice – from quality standards to classroom instruction, from coordination of private and public programs to integration and alignment with K-12 curriculum and funding.

And the Abbott V preschool order has brought together, in the 20 years since, so many talented and committed teachers, administrators, advocates, lawmakers, parents and experts from diverse sectors – child care, head start, public school, higher education and advocacy. Fighting through long-held differences and distrust, this powerful coalition collaborated over many years to build a preschool system that is not only the crown jewel of early education in the United States, but, most importantly, is improving the lives of thousands of children all across our state every day.

We’re here to recognize this amazing accomplishment and to honor those who worked so tirelessly to make it happen, so many of whom are with us today.

But we will also reflect on our extraordinary achievement and reaffirm our commitment to not stop until every New Jersey child has the opportunity for school readiness by attending an Abbott preschool.

And with Governor Phil Murphy’s historic announcement yesterday of an additional $57 million to strengthen and expand Abbott preschool, now is not the time to rest. Let’s get back to work.

Thank you.

More information about Abbott preschool is available on the ELC website.

View a short video about Abbott preschool created by Advocates for Children of NJ 

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Sharon Krengel
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