April 26, 2021

A new Education Law Center analysis shows preschool enrollments declined sharply in former Abbott districts in the fall of 2020, with 29 out of 31 districts reporting declines. Former Abbott districts saw the enrollments of four-year-old students drop by 11%, or about 2,400 students; enrollments of three-year-olds dropped by a staggering 34%, or about 6,500 students.

After a period of consistent growth, the expansion of preschool to low-income students across the state also stalled with a 3% drop in fall enrollment in non-Abbott districts. Statewide, these declines caused by the Covid-19 pandemic represent a tremendous loss of opportunity for high-need children to close the gap in kindergarten readiness.

For a district-by-district breakdown click here.

The great majority of students who did enroll in preschool programs this year received remote instruction for all or much of the school year, instead of experiencing high-quality, in-person programming.

As a result of under-enrollment and remote or curtailed instruction, there is an urgent need for remediation to address this substantial instructional loss and the looming kindergarten gap next school year.

As an initial step, the State must work to identify and increase outreach efforts to eligible students who did not enroll in a preschool program this year and, at a minimum, ensure they receive appropriate supports next school year in pre-K4 and kindergarten. This outreach is especially critical for young children with disabilities, as the rate of special education identification and those receiving IEPs in preschool also fell this school year.1

Additionally, the State must assure parents that it is safe for their children to return to school and emphasize the importance of in-person preschool programming.2

Extensive research has shown that intensive, high-quality preschool programs like New Jersey’s lead to meaningful, persistent effects on the whole child, supporting school success and better social and economic outcomes long-term, especially for the most disadvantaged children.3

Next, the State should leverage federal funds to address the problems posed by the sharp decline in preschool enrollments. Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funds in the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 (ARP) may be used to address the many impacts of COVID-19 on pre-K through 12 education.

These funds could be used to meet the urgent need for remediation for preschool-aged children and rising kindergarteners by creating summer programming opportunities and additional support services, such as tutoring, during the school year. The funds could also be used to hire additional educators to address learning delays, meet the social and emotional needs of students, and provide support to existing staff and students.4

W. Steven Barnett, the Co-Director and Founder of NIEER, and other experts take these pedagogical recommendations further by highlighting several effective practices for early learning and development:

  • Looping teachers so students have the same teacher in the first and second year of preschool;
  • Building collective capacity for quality teaching through professional development and group lesson planning;
  • Planning extra supports for teachers in fall 2021, especially those working with children with special needs and behavior issues;
  • Strengthening parent-school connections; and
  • Curating and making available resources for teachers and parents.5

In addition to federal funds, state resources continue to be available for preschool. Since 2018, New Jersey has invested an additional $243.6 million to support high-quality preschool education, and state funding levels were maintained during the 2020-2021 school year, including money for preschool expansion.6

Governor Murphy’s State Budget proposal for FY2022 proposes $50 million in new spending, and $26 million of that amount will be used to assist approximately 30 new districts to launch preschool programs in the 2021-22 school year.7 The Legislature is expected to support the Governor’s continued investment in high-quality preschool programming.

“The Abbott preschool program is an essential component of efforts to close the educational opportunity gap,” said Jason Pedraza, a Skadden Fellow and Staff Attorney at Education Law Center. “COVID-19 has exacerbated many existing disparities and compounded the disadvantages facing low-income children. That’s why the State must address the sharp decline in enrollments and any instructional delays and make every effort to support students who have lost this crucial educational opportunity this year.”

[1] Steven Barnett (2021, March 24). Responding to the pandemic’s impacts on early learning and development. Keynote Address. NJDOE Virtual Conference, Expanding Opportunities: Your Guide to High Quality Teaching, Learning & Leadership in Early Childhood.

[2] Id.


[4] For a more comprehensive description of how funds may be used see: https://www.ed.gov/news/press-releases/department-education-announces-american-rescue-plan-funds-all-50-states-puerto-rico-and-district-columbia-help-schools-reopen.

[5] Barnett, Responding to the pandemic’s impacts on early learning and development.

[6] https://nieer.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/NIEER_Policy_Brief_Impacts-of-Covid-19-on_Preschool_Enrollment_and_Spending_3_16_21.pdf.

[7] https://www.nj.gov/treasury/omb/publications/22bib/BIB.pdf.

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24

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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240