For all the debate over Abbott v. Burke and how much New Jersey's urban schools should receive in funding, one topic is seeing less argument these days: the value of the state’s court-ordered preschool.
Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget for next year has left untouched the funding for two years of full-day preschool for more than 40,000 children in the 31 Abbott districts. The program is now in its 10th year by order of the state Supreme Court.
Beyond that, acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has openly called the state’s preschool push a success that should be left alone. His staff last week gave a presentation to the Board of Education (BOE) that provided new research as to the benefits and quality of preschool in districts like Newark, Camden and Paterson.
In one of several studies presented, more than 700 students attending two years of full-day preschool were followed into elementary school and compared with students who didn’t attend preschool.
By second grade, according to one of the findings, they were half as likely to need to be repeat a grade.
"That is huge," said Ellen Wolock, the state Department of Education’s director of preschool education. "The whole rest of their lives can be impacted by having to be held back."
That’s not to say there is no debate at all. Some Assembly Republicans this winter pitched a plan to scale back the state’s commitment to the Abbott preschool and use some of the money for suburban districts. As Christie’s budget continues under review, they are not giving up, either.
Meanwhile, new early childhood centers for the Abbott districts that were once planned under the state’s school construction program have been largely put on hold.
Six new early childhood centers in places like Passaic, Keansburg and Jersey City that were on the state’s priority list two years ago are now under review, along with 100 other projects.
Officials of the Schools Development Authority (SDA) have only said they are looking at "alternative delivery" methods, which could include relying on some of the private providers that already make up a good portion of many district programs.
When Christie administration lawyers went before the state Supreme Court and a fact-finding hearing to argue against providing additional aid for at-risk students, preschool was noticeably absent from the discussion. The case is slated back before the court next week.
"It’s really hard to argue against a program that you can prove is successful," said Ellen Frede, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers and the architect of much of New Jersey’s program under then-Gov. Jim McGreevey.
"I don’t know why anyone talks about it any more,” she said. “We have something really winning here."
The central tenets of the programs are that all teachers are certified, class sizes are limited to no more than 15 students, and programs follow research-driven curriculum. And the research of Frede and others found that the programs consistently meet quality benchmarks.
For example, the study looked at whether programs in teaching early literacy highlighted a variety of print materials in the classroom or made students aware of the sounds they use in words.
In 2003, the average score of programs across the state was below 3 in a scale of 1-5. In 2009, it was just below 4.
At the presentation last week, board members said this is one of the inarguable success stories of the Abbott court that otherwise continue to be so hotly debated.
"New Jersey is really at the forefront in early childhood education nationally," said Dorothy Strickland, a Rutgers professor in literacy education and a member of the state board. "And in terms of the long-term costs, the benefits are obviously great for dropout prevention and other areas.”
Still, she and others said the challenge continues to be in maintaining that progress and extending the program to other at-risk students, as well as up into the earliest grades of elementary schools.
"We’ve come a long way, but we need to keep moving forward," Strickland said.