New Jersey’s high quality “Abbott Preschool Program” is recognized as a national model. Under the New Jersey Supreme Court’s landmark rulings in the Abbott v. Burke case, and a school funding formula enacted in 2008, a strong policy framework is in place with the objective of ensuring every low-income child in New Jersey can enroll in preschool.
Yet, in 2012-13, there are 90,916 three- and four-year-olds eligible for preschool across the state, but only 47,247 of them are in full-day, high-quality programs. This leaves 43,669 low-income children underserved or not served at all.
High Quality Abbott Preschool in Urban Districts
In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court mandated full-day preschool for all three- and four-year-old children in the 31 urban, high poverty “Abbott” school districts. These rulings led to the establishment of the Abbott Preschool Program. Now in its thirteenth year of implementation by the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE), Abbott Preschool is widely acclaimed as among the most comprehensive, coherent and successful programs in the nation.
The Court’s preschool mandate for the urban districts remains in effect. These districts, with support from the NJDOE, must provide preschool for all three- and four-year-olds who want to enroll and, at a minimum, maintain enrollment levels of at least 90 percent of the estimated universe of all three- and four-year-old children in the community.
Despite initial gains, progress toward universal enrollment in the Abbott districts has slowed in recent years. After nearly doubling from 1999 to 2003, actual preschool enrollment has only grown from 34,443 in 2003, to 42,924 in 2013. Over 4,000 additional children are eligible for the program but are not currently being served.
There are a several reasons for the under-enrollment in urban districts, including the lack of appropriate classroom space, the imposition of fees for wraparound services, and inadequate outreach and recruitment. Upon taking office in 2010, Governor Christie de-emphasized preschool implementation and expansion, thereby leaving districts without the funding, facilities and other supports needed to ensure universal enrollment.
Expansion of Abbott Preschool Statewide
In 2008, the New Jersey Legislature enacted a new statewide school finance formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA). The SFRA includes state categorical funding for the Abbott Preschool Program, based on actual costs of implementation in the urban districts.
The SFRA also mandates the expansion of Abbott Preschool to other high poverty districts and to low-income children across the state. Under the SFRA, districts with over 40% low-income student enrollment are required to provide preschool to all three- and four-year-olds, while districts with fewer than 40% low-income student enrollment are required to provide preschool to the low-income children only. The former are known as “universal” districts, while the latter are termed “targeted” districts.
The SFRA established a five-year timeframe to phase in Abbott Preschool to universal and targeted districts. Under this schedule, full implementation should have been completed by the current school year.
Unfortunately, Governor Christie failed to provide funding for Abbott Preschool expansion in the last four State budgets. As a result, preschool expansion has not occurred, even though it continues to be mandated by the SFRA.
As a result of the Governor’s refusal to expand preschool under SFRA, in 2012-13, there were 43,664 three- and four-year-olds eligible for full-day preschool in “Expansion Districts,” but only 4,323 of those were in full-day, high quality preschool programs, leaving 39,341 unserved and underserved.
Renewing New Jersey’s Commitment to High Quality Preschool
Research shows that children who have high quality early learning experiences fare better in school and in life. These children are less likely to drop out of school, repeat grades, need special education services, or get into trouble with the law. Helping all children start school ready to learn is critical to their future success and to the well-being of society. It is also essential for closing gaps in achievement among low-income students and their more affluent peers.
Given both the enormous benefits of, and the clear legal mandate for, preschool, ELC will be working closely with educators, parents and other organizations across the state in the coming year to advocate for funding in the FY15 State Budget to expand the Abbott Preschool Program and to identify obstacles to full enrollment. To continue improving educational outcomes for at-risk children and children of color, it is critical that the State provide these children access to high quality classrooms as quickly as possible.
“It’s time to re-assert New Jersey’s leadership on early education,” said Ruth Lowenkron, the ELC Senior Attorney who is leading the organization’s advocacy efforts to increase preschool enrollment. “New Jersey is poised to become the first state where every three- and four-year-old child in a high poverty community, and every low-income child elsewhere in the state, has the opportunity to obtain the extraordinary benefit gained from attending high quality preschool.”
For more information about preschool in NJ, including interactive charts by school district, please visit the Preschool Data Web Page.
Policy and Outreach Director
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Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications