Quality Preschool is Key to Stronger, Fairer New Jersey

W. Steven Barnett, Ph.D.
Topic: Outcomes

First published in NJ Spotlight

This year marks the 20th anniversary of what has been called the Abbott preschool program—a national and international model of high-quality, effective, preschool education that, despite its success, has yet to be offered to most children in New Jersey.

For almost a decade, New Jersey led the nation in improved outcomes for children in low-income districts through quality preschool. But the Great Recession hit our state’s budget hard and former Gov. Chris Christie, who denigrated preschool education as mere babysitting, failed to expand access and let state funding per-child slide.

Gov. Phil Murphy can make New Jersey a leader again by keeping his promise to make quality, free pre-K available to all families in New Jersey. He can start by prioritizing the plan the Legislature approved a decade ago.

Had New Jersey implemented the expansion legislation passed by the Legislature in 2008, half of all 4-year-olds and nearly 40 percent of 3-year-olds—the vast majority of the state’s highest-needs children—would already have high-quality pre-K.

New Jersey would be one of the top 10 states for public preschool enrollment of 4-year-olds and one of the top two states for 3- and 4-year-olds together. Instead, New Jersey ranks 20th for 4-year-old enrollment—behind Nebraska, Arkansas, Louisiana and New Mexico.

In late 2017, the Legislature earmarked $25 million to expand these pre-K programs. Gov. Christie diverted $5 million leaving $20 million for 26 additional school districts. Those expansion efforts are underway—but even so, most New Jersey families continue to lack access.

As noted earlier, state funding per-child for preschool—which affects preschool quality and improved outcomes for children—stalled during Christie’s tenure. New Jersey state spending per child enrolled in public preschool actually decreased 5 percent, from $13,028 in 2010 to $12,424 in 2016, failing to keep pace with K-12 spending, which rose 13 percent. Note: spending numbers are all in 2016 dollars (adjusted for inflation).

The Abbott preschool model was designed to provide young children with a strong foundation for later success in school and life, and it has worked in even the state’s most disadvantaged cities.

The Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES) from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) is based on standardized tests given to all New Jersey children in fourth and fifth grade found preschool associated with persistent gains in language arts, literacy, mathematics, and science. Test score gains were roughly twice as large for children who participated in two years of preschool rather than one. Those who attended Abbott pre-K were also less likely to repeat a grade or to need special education.

Gov. Murphy campaigned as a champion for universal preschool. Building on the 2017 preschool expansion to add more districts and fully fund preschool will help make New Jersey a true leader in providing a world class education for every child.

W. Steven Barnett is a board of governors professor, founder, and senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education, including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities. Barnett earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan.

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