New Jersey’s Abbott pre-kindergarten program is among the top programs in the country, according to a new study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. The study titled The State of Preschool: 2006 State Preschool Yearbook, reports that the Abbott program meets nine out of ten standards on a research-based checklist of quality benchmarks. The program falls short of a perfect rating because the State does not require assistant teachers to hold a Child Development Associates credential or its equivalent, as recommended by NIEER. On the other hand, New Jersey is among only fifteen states to mandate lead teachers in every pre-k classroom to hold a four-year college degree and specialized training in early childhood education, a critical component of program quality, according to NIEER.

The Abbott pre-k program grew out of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s 1998 decision in the state’s school equity case, Abbott v. Burke. Education Law Center (ELC) is counsel to the Abbott school children.

The court’s Abbott V decision requires the State to provide all three- and four-year-old children residing in urban or “Abbott” districts with well-planned, high quality pre-kindergarten to ensure a thorough and efficient education under the State’s constitution. The New Jersey high court delineated the components of the high quality program the State must provide for urban preschoolers: a certified teachers and assistant teacher for each class; class size of 15; developmentally appropriate curricula; adequate facilities; and transportation, health and other related services as needed. Now in its eighth year, the Abbott pre-k program grew from 5,000 in 1998-1999, the first year of implementation, to 40,500, or seventy-four percent of eligible children, in 2005-2006.

The Abbott pre-k program scores high not only on indicators of quality and enrollment, but also on outcomes for children. For example, a 2005 study by NIEER, The Effects of New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program on Young Children’s School Readiness , found marked improvement in the early language, literacy, and math skills for entering kindergarteners who had participated in the program at age four. A report issued by the New Jersey Department of Education in 2005, Giant Steps for the Littlest Children: Progress in the Sixth Year of the Abbott Preschool Program, shows the Abbott pre-k program has made significant gains in classroom quality and student preparation for kindergarten, especially in the areas of language and early literacy skills.

New Jersey has made remarkable progress in developing an excellent pre-k program, but significant challenges remain. Enrollment in the Abbott program has leveled off in the past three years, increasing by only 2.5 percent from 2004-2005 to 2005-2006. The State set a yearly benchmark of enrolling ninety percent of the eligible universe, but for several years the statewide average has hovered in the mid-seventy percent range, with some districts enrolling as low as sixty percent of eligible children. The State has not undertaken an assessment of the reasons for under enrollment, although lack of adequate facilities is a likely cause.

Additionally, New Jersey has not done enough to expand pre-k funding and access outside the Abbott districts. The NIEER Yearbook reports that in 2005-2006, just 23% of three-year-olds and 36% of four-year-olds statewide were enrolled in a publicly funded pre-k program, either state-funded pre-k, Head Start or a special education program. A November 2006 joint legislative committee report  recommended expansion of the Abbott pre-k program to all preschoolers in an additional 77 low-income school districts, providing high-quality early childhood educational opportunities to thousands more unserved children. The committee also recommended that low-income children in all other districts in the State be given access to the state-funded preschool program. So far this session, however, the legislature has done nothing to move forward with the recommendation. Moreover, Gov. Jon Corzine’s FY 2008 budget only marginally addresses the committee’s recommendation. He proposes $10 million for pre-k expansion and enhancement grants for low-income communities outside the Abbott districts, but it is unclear what amount of this money will be allocated to create new pre-k slots to serve more children or what amount will be used to enhance the quality of existing community-based programs.

Prepared: April 20, 2007

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