GOVERNOR OUT TO DISMANTLE ABBOTT PRESCHOOL – A NATIONAL MODEL
Governor Chris Christie appears to be on a mission to dismantle one of the most successful education programs for poor communities in the nation: New Jersey’s high quality, full-day, public preschool program for three- and four-year-olds ordered by the State Supreme Court’s landmark 1998 ruling in Abbott v. Burke V.
In 2008, the value and importance of the “Abbott Preschool Program” was recognized by NJ legislators when they included the program’s expansion statewide in the new school funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). More recently, President Obama used the NJ model when proposing his initiative to support access to high quality preschool across the nation.
Now, through his radical plan to redistribute state school aid, Governor Christie would eliminate the targeted funding that supports implementation of high quality preschool. The Governor’s so-called “Fairness Formula” would take all currently budgeted education dollars, including the over $650 million earmarked for preschool, and divide them evenly across the state, regardless of student need or a school district’s ability to raise local funds.
This plan would cause huge budget reductions in urban and other school districts currently providing universal preschool. These budget reductions, in turn, would necessitate draconian cuts in programs and services. Since districts would no longer receive preschool categorical aid, they would no doubt be unable to continue providing the program to thousands of at-risk three- and four-year-olds.
Current costs for Abbott preschool – provided through a mixed delivery system of Head Start, private preschool providers, and district-run programs – range from $8,232 to $14,898 per pupil. These amounts reflect the cost of delivering preschool under some of the most rigorous quality standards in the nation. The program is also entirely funded by the state. Footing the bill for preschool by raising local taxes would be impossible for districts, as they attempt to cope with the loss of significant K-12 funding under the Governor’s proposal.
There are currently 48,967 three- and four-year-olds enrolled in high quality preschool across the state, with 24,865 students in private providers or Head Start, and 24,102 in in-district classrooms. The expansion mandated in the SFRA – which Governor Christie has refused to fund since taking office in 2010 – would boost NJ preschool enrollment by 50,000 eligible children in high need districts across the state.
The impacts of the high quality Abbott preschool program are well documented. In 2005-06, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) launched a study to measure the quality and benefits of Abbott preschool. The study, called the Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES), follows students who spent two years in the full-time Abbott Preschool program, comparing them to their peers who participated in one year or did not attend preschool.
The most recent follow-up, completed in 2013, assessed the effects of preschool among 4th and 5th graders. The study found that two years of preschool closed the achievement gap between minority and white students by 20 to 40%. Children who participated in two years of Abbott Preschool had better NJASK results in all subjects than those who did not participate or who completed only one year.
The APPLES study follow-up also found that participation in Abbott Preschool decreased special education rates and student retention, thereby saving districts money in the long run. In analyzing these stunning results, NIEER concluded that the Abbott Preschool program had effects that far surpassed similar but “less well-funded programs with weaker standards” and recommended that the program be expanded to reach all at-risk children:
“Based on the results of the 5th grade follow-up we suggest that New Jersey would be wise to take additional steps to build on its success to date…plans should be developed to extend the opportunity for high-quality pre-K to all of the state’s children.”
Governor Christie’s radical plan to dismantle Abbott Preschool is wrong-headed and just plain wrong for families, schools, communities, and, most importantly, our most vulnerable children. The Governor wants to sacrifice a powerful, research-proven and historic initiative that is closing early learning gaps for poor children simply to promote his political agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy. Of all the many reasons why the Governor’s school funding plan is unfair, his proposal to dismantle one of the nation’s best preschool programs tops the list.
Policy and Outreach Director
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Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications