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Op-Ed: Expanding Preschool Would Be Wise Investment in New Jersey’s Future

Studies clearly show benefits – including improved quality of life, skilled workforce -- far outweigh initial expenditure

W. Steven Barnett
W. Steven Barnett

Three decades ago, I published my first scientific paper on the economic benefits of preschool education.

A few years earlier, I had been invited to join a research team studying the long-term consequences of high-quality preschool education. The basis for this study was the random assignment of 128 children in the early 1960s at ages 3 and 4 to either a high-quality preschool education program or a control group that stayed home.

I joined this study when the “children” were followed up at age 19. As an economist, my job was to estimate both the costs of the program and the dollar value of effects on schooling, crime, employment, health, and other aspects of their lives.

I found that the program returned $7 in benefit for every dollar in cost, even though it was quite expensive because it had one teacher for every six children. The big economic gains came from reductions in the costs of special education, delinquency, and crime, and increases in earnings.

This finding that the economic return from high-quality preschool education was quite high -- at least for disadvantaged children like those in our study -- was remarkable, but it was subsequently replicated by other preschool studies with long-term follow-up.

I, along with other researchers, had equally high hopes that public policy would follow by providing high-quality preschool education to all young children in low-income families. Research since then has convinced me that such programs also benefit children from middle-income families, and that all would benefit if high quality preschool was made available to everyone. This finding became well-known, and publicly funded preschool education has become much more common as a result.

Unfortunately, the results have not been what we expected.

The policy landscape is littered with preschool programs that have failed to produce the promised results. This has given rise to considerable skepticism, and some have concluded the preschool programs on a large scale do not and cannot work. While the skepticism is understandable, this conclusion is incorrect.

The primary reason for widespread failure is that our government has substituted cheaper programs bearing no resemblance to those proven effective.

In addition, just about everyone has underestimated how much expertise and hard work is required to provide high-quality preschool. It turns out it is at least as expensive and difficult at providing excellent education in K-12.

Concluding from the many preschool failures that high quality preschool is ineffective is much like concluding that diet and exercise don’t produce weight loss. The real problem is that sticking to a good diet and exercise plan, day in and day out, is difficult, and most people who set out to do it don’t.

One of the Garden State’s best-kept secrets may be that it has succeeded in preschool precisely because it has done the hard work that other states have not.

In part, this is because New Jersey’s Supreme Court mandated that the state do so for 31 school districts that were part of the landmark Abbott v. Burke case. The court required New Jersey to fund and implement a program that is much more like the one I studied 30 years ago than any other program in the country.

To the state’s credit, the state Department of Education has put in place a rigorous and extensive support and oversight system that has raised and maintained quality for more than a decade.

Direct observation of teaching conducted every year shows that the vast majority of “Abbott” Pre-K classrooms are good to excellent. When I take visitors from other states and countries to see these classrooms they are stunned at their excellence – a common reaction is “We do the same curriculum, but it doesn’t look like this.”

Follow-up studies conducted by NIEER find that New Jersey’s preschool program does produce long-term gains in achievement as well as reducing the need for grade repetition and special education (which produces significant cost savings).

While taking justifiable pride in our accomplishments, New Jersey can and should do even more.

In 2008, New Jersey committed to provide high-quality pre-K beyond the 31 Abbott districts to children in other communities that have many disadvantaged children. However, the Great Recession hit the state budget, and the funding for preschool evaporated.

With the economy recovering, it is time to recommit to preschool expansion. In the long run this will save the state money while also improving our quality of life and the skills of our workforce.

This is not about spending more money, but spending more on success and less on failure. It will not be easy, but New Jersey has already shown it is up to the task.

W. Steven Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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