New Federal Funding Could Jumpstart Program Expansion Statewide
On Thursday morning, President Obama released the details of a groundbreaking federal initiative to expand early childhood programs across the country. The President proposes a new state-federal partnership to guarantee access to high-quality preschool for all low-income four-year-olds through local collaborations between public school and community-based providers, with costs shared by states and the federal government. All four-year-olds from families at or below 200% of the poverty rate would be eligible, but the program will also offer incentives to expand access to middle class families as well.
Most importantly, states will be required to meet standards of high-quality preschool in all classrooms: qualified teachers with comparable salaries to K-12 teachers, small class sizes, a rigorous curriculum, comprehensive health and related services, and effective evaluation of programs.
The President’s preschool initiative closely follows New Jersey’s Abbott program, now in its 12th year and considered the nation’s strongest preschool program. The Abbott program provides full-day, high-quality preschool for all three- and four-year-olds in thirty-one (31) of New Jersey’s poorest school districts. Districts must contract with Head Start and community providers willing to participate. All classrooms – public school, Head Start and community provider – are required to maintain the standards of high quality established in the landmark Abbott v. Burke court rulings.
“The President’s announcement today has a special meaning for our state. New Jersey can take enormous pride that our treasured Abbott preschool program is now the model for the rest of the nation,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and lead counsel in the Abbott litigation.
Rigorous longitudinal studies show that Abbott preschool participants have higher achievement levels in literacy and math and are less likely to be retained in later grades, and they also highlight the increased benefit of two years of preschool as compared to one.
“The President’s initiative would also help New Jersey complete the unfinished business of fulfilling a commitment by the Legislature in 2008 to expand Abbott preschool to more than 80 other high poverty communities and to low-income children elsewhere across the Garden State,” said Mr. Sciarra.
In the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 – New Jersey’s path-breaking weighted student funding formula – the Legislature included a multi-year plan for Abbott preschool program expansion. This expansion plan, unfortunately, was set aside temporarily during the economic downturn and is now poised to be restarted.
“Everyone who cares about improving outcomes for disadvantaged children must make sure Congress enacts the President’s preschool initiative as quickly as possible,” said Mr. Sciarra. “New federal funding could finally allow New Jersey to become the first state to provide access to high quality preschool to every low-income three- and four-year-old child.”
As of 2011-12, approximately 86,000 three- and four-year-olds were eligible for full-day, state-funded preschool in New Jersey. Nearly half of those are already being served in the former Abbott districts, with another 5,000 enrolled in other low-income districts. That leaves over 38,000 preschoolers who are not receiving the services they are entitled to. New Jersey is well-positioned to embrace the federal government’s recent commitment to early childhood education. By leveraging federal funding New Jersey can reinvigorate its own commitment to the expansion of preschool in the state.
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