Our Insights

Early Childhood Education in New Jersey

A 20-Year History

New Jersey High-quality PreK

Katherine Hodges, NIEER

New Jersey has a long history of supporting early learning through New Jersey Supreme Court decisions, legal regulations, financial investment, and state leadership. However, that support was greatly expanded by a landmark legal decision that initiated major changes and provided a foundation for progress over the past 20 years. Table 1 reports enrollment and funding per child from Fall 1999 to Fall 2019.

Abbott v. Burke and Implementation of its Preschool Provisions

In 1981, New Jersey Supreme Court filings initiated the landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation. The Abbott v. Burke case may be the most educationally significant litigation for low-income and minority children since Brown v. Board of Education. The Abbott remedies were strikingly detailed and comprehensive, and the mandates broke new ground in school finance and education policy in the United States. After several iterations, in 1998, groundbreaking NJ Supreme Court rulings ordered a set of entitlements for children in 28 (later expanded to 31) of the state’s school districts with the highest concentrations of poverty, including a high-quality preschool program for all 3- and 4-year-olds.

In 1999, the first Division of Early Childhood Education in the New Jersey Department of Education was created and charged with designing and implementing the court-ordered New Jersey preschool program in the 31 Abbott school districts and overseeing kindergarten in the ECPA districts. Since then, early childhood has variously been a division or an office.

Under the Abbott rulings and regulations, the Office of Early Childhood established a comprehensive full-day preschool system with an age-appropriate curriculum based on student learning standards, a maximum class size of 15, certified teachers, assistant teachers, support services, and enrollment levels of at least 90 percent of the universe of all age-eligible children in the community. Several state Supreme Court rulings were required to secure full implementation of the Court’s intent in 1998’s Abbott V ruling, including Abbott VIAbbott VIII, and Abbott XII.

Governor McGreevey’s administration which took office in 2002 fully supported implementation of the Abbott mandate and greatly increased funding. Enrollment more than doubled from 1999 to 2004. In addition to fully funding preschool education in the Abbott districts, the state provided partial funding, programmatic support, and guidance to 96 non-Abbott Early Childhood Program Aid districts (ECPA) where 20-to-40 percent of children qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. A new Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI) added 24 districts to the total number of districts funded by the state to provide preschool education to children in low-income families. Both ECPA and ELLI programs allowed non-Abbott districts to apply for state funds to expand enrollment, extend program hours, and improve quality.

The Abbott “model” that developed through this series of court orders and gubernatorial and legislative initiatives arguably has the nation’s highest standards for preschool education. Those standards include: licensed teachers with a four-year degree and certification in early childhood, pay parity with public K-12 personnel, maximum class size of 15, a research-based curriculum, a full 6-hour day, two-years beginning at age 3, specialized personnel to support parents and teachers, and a continuous improvement system. The program is delivered in a mixed delivery system—in public schools, Head Start, and private child-care centers. Head Start and private programs are funded through contracts with districts that ensure all providers meet the same rigorous standards.

In 2007, New Jersey updated and strengthened quality requirements pursuant to P.L. 2007, c. 260. That year the Department of Education’s organizational structure also shifted to expand and position the Office of Early Childhood Education as a sub-division under the Division of Academic and Professional Standards. As a subdivision, the Office became the Division of Early Childhood Education (DECE), expanding to include two separate offices: the Office of Preschool Education and the Office of Kindergarten to Third Grade Education.

Preschool Quality Enhancement Awards

In 2008, Governor Corzine’s budgeted $8.5 million for the Preschool Quality Enhancement Award (PQEA) program to improve the quality of preschool programs serving economically disadvantaged children in non-Abbott districts. To be eligible, at least 75% of the enrolled preschool children in a district had to qualify for the federal free lunch program. PQEA Awards were made to 14 non-Abbott districts in the amount of  $3,000 per child eligible for the federal free lunch program enrolled in the existing preschool programs.  The goal of the PQEA was to enable full-day preschool educational programs located in non-Abbott districts to attain Abbott quality standards.

Funds could be used to:

  • Support certification efforts for classroom teachers and teacher assistants,
  • Select and implement appropriate research-based curriculum and assessment models,
  • Enhance teacher professional development, and
  • Implement other strategies necessary to align these programs with the high-quality standards of New Jersey’s Abbott preschool programs.

In 2008, the NJ School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) was passed, and Governor Jon Corzine committed additional funds to increase education services, paving the way for preschool expansion. He also shifted the state Office of Head Start functions from the Department of Human Services to the Department of Education. The Head Start Collaboration Office was created from the State and National Collaboration Offices that are authorized by Section 642B(a)(2)(A) of the federal Head Start Act. The role of the New Jersey Head Start Collaboration Office was to assist in building early childhood systems and facilitate collaboration among Head Start agencies and entities that carry out activities designed to benefit low-income children birth to school entry and their families. As the DECE scope expanded, work was initiated to address early childhood education continuity and quality across the early learning spectrum.

Fiscal constraint and federal stimulus, recession, and recovery

In 2010, the state Supreme Court again confirmed its investment in early childhood education and proposed budget cuts to SFRA were overturned ordering full funding for the 31 Abbott districts. The DECE scope of work increased again. As authorized in the Improving Head Start for Readiness Act of 2007, Executive Order 162 created the New Jersey Council for Young Children (NJCYC).  The purpose of the NJCYC was to serve as the Governor’s state advisory council for early care and education, specifically to ensure coordination and collaboration across the birth to three years of early childhood programs and services in NJ.  The NJCYC governance structure includes the Early Learning Commission (ELC) and the Inter-Departmental Planning Group (IDPG).  Program administrators from each of the state departments with oversight of early childhood programs are represented on the IDPG, which convenes regularly to make policy recommendations to the ELC.  The ELC is made up of the commissioners from the corresponding state department represented in the IDPG, and it makes decisions about state funding allocations and significant policy decisions.

In 2011, within the DECE, the Office of Kindergarten to Third grade was briefly expanded to become the Office of Kindergarten to Fifth Grade. This change covered the education and care of children and programs from Birth to Fifth Grade. The DOE began developing stronger partnerships with state professional organizations and expanded its commitment to quality for school administrators through professional development and support, providing school leaders with the skills necessary to be effective early childhood school leaders.

In 2013 the New Jersey was one of six states to receive a federal “Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge” grant, in this case of $44.3 million. The purpose of the funding was to improve program quality and service coordination for infants, young children, and their families to maximize children’s learning and development. The work conducted under the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant strengthened early childhood work across the state. It reflected the collaborative work of the New Jersey Departments of Children and Families, Education, Health, Human Services, and the NJ Council for Young Children. The DECE was able to use the opportunity to make great strides to influence the number and quantity of services provided to state-funded school districts.

In 2014, New Jersey regulations (18a:44-6) established the regulatory requirement and description for dedicated leadership of the Division of Early Childhood Education to include an administrator and Head of the Division who shall be qualified by training and experience to perform the duties of the Division. They shall commit his or her entire time to the performance of those duties.  The specific language from the regulations is below.

The Division shall be responsible for:

  • Setting required standards for early childhood education programs in districts that operate preschool programs for three- and four-year-olds that emphasize the quality necessary to meet children’s needs, including, but not limited to, standards for teacher qualifications, program design, and facilities;
  • Identifying and disseminating information on model early childhood education programs that meet and exceed high students for program quality;
  • The coordination of early childhood programs and services in consultation with the Department of Human Services;
  • Identifying the amount of funds necessary to implement successful early childhood education programs based on a comprehensive needs assessment;
  • Assisting, as needed, school districts in implementing early childhood education programs;
  • Implementing the early childhood education orders of the New Jersey Supreme Court;
  • Overseeing the evaluation and monitoring of early childhood education programs in districts that operate preschool programs for three- and four-year-olds; and
  • Providing, in consultation with the Department of Human Services, an annual report to the Legislature and public on early childhood education.

In December 2014, New Jersey was awarded a four-year $69 million Preschool Development Grant. The purpose of this grant was to support the expansion of high-quality preschool programs for low-income 4-year-old children. Sixteen districts in New Jersey received funding through this grant and either opened new classrooms or improved the quality of their existing ECPA or ELLI classrooms (e.g., moved from a half-day to a full day). After the four-year grant period, the state including these 16 districts into the state funding formula as fully funded districts to continue serving children.

In 2017, the Office of K-5 was returned to the initial grades served in the Office of K-3. Also, the DECE’s name was changed to The Division of Early Childhood Education and Family Engagement. Subsequently, in 2018 “and Family Engagement” was dropped from the division name.

Renewed State Initiative

In 2018, Governor Phil Murphy took office with a commitment to expand preschool education at Abbott standards. The FY2019 state budget included $83 million to support existing public preschools and expand preschool following the Abbott preschool regulations to tens of thousands of additional children.

In 2019, due to the state’s commitment to Pre-K expansion, the DECE scope of work had grown substantially.  Again, the Division was reorganized, and the DECE became its own independent Division within the Department of Education. It was shifted from under the Division of Teaching and Learning and reconstituted under its own independent organizational line lead by an Assistant Commissioner and a Deputy Assistant Commissioner.

At that time, the DECE Office of Preschool served 35 Abbott school districts, 39 former  Early Childhood Program Aid (ECPA) districts, 7 Early Launch to Learning Initiative (ELLI) districts, 16 districts with Preschool Expansion Grants (PEG), 96 districts receiving Preschool Education Expansion Aid (PEEA), 12 Charter Schools, 32 previously non-state funded preschool district programs, statewide Head Start programs, and multiple community preschool programs. The work is anchored in state regulation, the NJ Birth-to-Three Early Learning Standards, Preschool Teaching and Learning Standards, Preschool Program Implementation Guidelines, Preschool Classroom Teaching Guidelines, federal Head Start partnerships, DOE priorities, and the Governor’s agenda.

Research and Evaluation

New Jersey’s preschool policy has been guided by research and evaluation that informed both the court case and state agency actions. Early on the state formed an Early Learning Improvement Consortium (ELIC) with higher education as part of the continuous improvement system and has collected data on classroom quality continuously since 2003 which is summarized in Table 2 for 2003-17 (data beyond 2017 are not comparable).  In addition, a series of evaluations have been conducted to study the program’s effects at kindergarten entry and to longer-term through the Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES).  These provide evidence that the program has met its goals for delivering high-quality services and providing educational benefits to the children served.  Key reports on quality and outcomes include:

Table 1: New Jersey Preschool Enrollment & State Spending Fall 1999 – Fall 2019

 EnrollmentPer Pupil Spending*
1999-200019,000Data not available
2000-200123,530Data not available
2019-202058,383 $14,799

Note: 1999-2001 represents the Abbott Preschool Program only. The subsequent years include all funding streams.

* Adjusted for inflation

Sources: Barnett et al., 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2007; 2008; 2009; 2010; 2011; 2012; 2013; 2014; 2015; 2016; 2017; Frede et al., 2009; Friedman-Krauss et al., 2018; 2019; in preparation

Table 2: Classroom Quality Scores (ECERS) 2003 – 2017

 Average ECERS Score
2009-2010Data not available
2011-2012Data not available

Sources: Esposito et al., 2004; 2005; Frances, 2016; ELIC, 2006; 2007; 2008; 2009; 2013

* Prior to 2015, classrooms were evaluated using ECERS-R. Beginning in 2015 the ECERS-3 was used. Scores are typically lower on ECERS-3 and this decrease does not necessarily indicate a drop in classroom quality.

The Authors

Kate is an Early Childhood Education Policy Specialist at NIEER, where she primarily focuses on state and national policy analysis. Her current work includes collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data for the annual State of Preschool Yearbook report, providing technical assistance to New Jersey school districts and private providers applying for and implementing the state-funded preschool program, among other projects.