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Preschool Matters Today

Will New Jersey Gut Its Abbott Preschool Program? Or, How to Ruin Absolutely Everything


February 4, 2011
Outcomes
W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.

New Jersey Republicans are floating a proposal to cut the state’s highly effective Abbott Preschool Program from a full day of services to half a day. This, they say, would free up about $300 million in school funding that could be “more equitably” disbursed statewide.  As is so often the case with such figures, the math is wrong—the plan might free up $150 million, but that is the least of the proposal’s problems.

They justify their proposal on the basis that the Abbott v. Burke V court decision did not specifically require the state to provide a full day of pre-K in order to provide a thorough and efficient education. Indeed, the justices wrote in 1998 that half a day of pre-K for kids in the state’s disadvantaged districts could represent an “initial reform.” (Emphasis added on the latter.)

It should go without saying that in the intervening years we have learned critical lessons about what it takes to provide disadvantaged kids with the kinds of experiences that enable them to acquire the skills necessary to narrow the achievement gap and enter school ready to learn.  Chief among them is that more is better.  NIEER conducted a randomized trial in the Abbott districts comparing extended-day, extended-year pre-K to the old half-day, school-year model.  The longer day and year had larger effects on test scores than a half-day and these gains persisted.  By first grade, effects of duration were apparent on more complex measures such as reading comprehension and calculation and not just on simple tasks like letter and number recognition.  Other studies show that full-day Abbott preschool delivers high-quality education that significantly raises test scores and reduces school failure.

The Republican proposal would take money from disadvantaged children in the Abbott districts to address problems in New Jersey’s school funding scheme that are not without merit. Districts with a high percentage of senior citizens would get some of the money. So would those that transport children over longer distances or have demonstrated cost efficiencies.  However, the state should address these issues without gutting the Abbott Preschool Program to do it.  One suggestion: forgo the $1 billion dollar voucher bill that would bail out private schools hurt by the recession, but do little to raise test scores.

Backers of the pre-K cut proclaim its virtues based on three principles — equity, efficiency and accountability. It passes none of those tests. The Abbott program was developed to remedy the gap in equity between disadvantaged kids and their more affluent peers. Gutting one of its major components is hardly equitable. Neither does it pass the efficiency test. When kids receive high-quality pre-K such as the Abbott program, the subsequent costs of educating them go down, and the longer term benefits include lower crime rates and a more productive workforce.  Sprinkling the funds freed-up around the rest of the state can’t be shown to produce any comparable returns for the taxpayer — who knows how the funds will be used?  And that brings us to accountability. One must simply ask, “What accountability?”

I subtitled this essay “How to Ruin Absolutely Everything” because it illustrates the kind of state policy making that ruins public education.  Hard evidence on what works and what doesn’t is ignored in favor of wishful thinking, ideology, and special interests.  No studies are conducted to test out new proposals before they are widely implemented.  Financial estimates are put forward that have no basis in reality.

It is a cruel irony that at the same time the proposal to gut the Abbott program surfaced the legislature is rushing to pass a voucher bill that research shows has no hope of significantly improving academic achievement and Governor Christie’s administration has announced a plan for the state to spend as much as $200 million to jump start a stalled Atlantic City casino project from which Morgan Stanley, in its wisdom, bailed out. The governor should insist that his advisors conduct cost/benefit analyses of both the voucher bill and the boardwalk empire plan.  While they are at it they should also run the numbers on the costs and benefits of the state’s investment in the Abbott Preschool Program. If he does, he’ll find the current pre-K program provides a rich return to the public while the other proposals are, as they say, under water.