Sharon is Policy & Outreach Director for the Education Law Center
A statewide program that elicits glowing reviews, saves taxpayers money and provides excellent results verified by serious analyses is rare indeed. But New Jersey’s high quality, full-day, preschool program for at-risk 3- and 4-year-olds meets all of these criteria and more. In fact, the state’s program is a national model, closely examined by the Obama Administration before the launch of the President’s Preschool for All Initiative.
High quality preschool is currently in place in New Jersey’s former Abbott districts and four additional districts. Seventeen more districts will receive a federal grant to provide the program to 4-year-olds from low-income families.
Abbott preschool was promised to all at-risk students around the state as part of the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA). But program expansion under the SFRA has never occurred – instead, it’s been a casualty of the Great Recession and lingering state budget issues.
The irony is that by not investing in preschool expansion, or even providing full funding for the current preschool program, New Jersey is missing out on an important opportunity to provide poor children with the boost they need to succeed in school, a boost that will save the state money as these children continue through elementary school and beyond.
The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) has studied New Jersey’s preschool program extensively. NIEER’s analyses show long-term gains directly attributable to the program, including increased achievement in language arts, math, and science. Test score gains from one year of preschool are roughly equivalent to 10-20% of the achievement gap between minority and white students, and the gains from two years are equivalent to 20-40% of the achievement gap. Preschool enrollment was also shown to reduce special education classifications by about 40% and grade retention by about 35%.
A decrease in special education classifications and grade retentions translates directly into savings for school districts and therefore taxpayers. An increase in achievement levels – now demonstrated through 5th grade – means less remediation and support needed by students who participated in preschool, and that also helps school budgets.
But there’s another reason why preschool has become more necessary than ever. The number of poor children living in New Jersey has increased significantly in recent years. In fact, 37% of all public school children in the state now qualify for free or reduced price lunch. The number of students eligible for preschool under the SFRA expansion has increased by almost 50% since 2009-10 (34,846 children in 2009-10, to 51,374 in 2014-15).
Preschool helps mitigate the impact of poverty on our youngest students. For example, studies have shown that poor children may arrive in kindergarten having learned many fewer words than their affluent peers. Preschool classrooms filled with age-appropriate books, a preschool curriculum based on numeracy and literacy often learned through play, and well-trained professionals committed to early education can help bridge the gap between rich and poor children.
We owe it to all New Jersey residents to help the state’s children succeed in school. Luckily we know exactly what works when it comes to starting off on the right foot. Put the money where it should be.