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Politics and Policy: Debating Pre-K Expansion in the Garden State

Proponents of preschool in NJ are eloquent in its defense, while opponents are equally articulate when disputing its advantages. Both sides are frustrated by financial concerns

sweeney
State Sen. Steve Sweeney

This is the final article in a multipart series that examines how New Jersey delivers preschool education, as well as the political and financial issues supporters face as they push to bring the benefits of pre-K to many more children.

Seven years after a proposal to expand New Jersey’s much-touted public pre-K program was approved, the state may be getting close to actually funding the plan, at least in part. Democratic legislators have unveiled an ambitious initiative that would bring preschool to an additional 17 disadvantaged districts at a cost of $165 million over two years.

But they will have to overcome opposition from Gov. Christie Christie and many Republicans who are staunch critics of any expansion. The opponents describe the state preschool program as an expensive, ineffective, and unfair example of government overreach, one that pours public funds into poor urban communities while struggling residents of suburbs and towns get nothing but mounting local tax bills.

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“What we have essentially is a very expensive program, and New Jersey really can't pay its bills right now, for example the pension system, and we're looking to expand government,” said Sen. Mike Doherty (R-Warren), a fierce critic of the state’s Abbott schools program. “You just can't keep expanding government when you can't pay your bills at the present moment.”

Both sides are armed with statistics that prove their points, as well as pointed arguments that dismiss their opponent’s studies and findings. Both groups draw their convictions from an ongoing national debate about the role of government in early education, and both say the direction the state takes on preschool in the near future could have a significant impact on the state’s economic future.

Pre-K and prosper?

The renewed push for pre-K is in large part the work of Brian Maher, the former CEO of Maher Terminals, a shipping terminal operator in Elizabeth.

A prominent educational philanthropist, he donated $5.5 million to the recent expansion of Ironbound Early Learning Center, a Head Start center in Newark. This year he joined up with former governors Tom Kean and James Florio and other business leaders to form Pre-K Our Way, a $3 million effort to make a preschool an issue in the 2017 gubernatorial campaign.

The organization ultimately wants the state to fund a pre-K expansion as outlined in the 2008 School Funding Reform Act, which would extend to 100 districts and cost at least $350 million.

“A child’s ZIP code should not determine whether or not they have access to high-quality pre-K,” Maher said. “A strong start in life – especially access to high-quality pre-K – should be an issue of fairness and equal access for all communities in New Jersey.”

According to Pre-K Our Way, giving disadvantaged children access to very good preschools is sound public policy, both educationally and economically.

“For years, policymakers have only considered early education initiatives as a school readiness strategy or as a way to close the achievement gap,” the organization says in position paper. “Now, economic experts are offering another reason: mounting evidence shows that investments in early education are an important economic development strategy due to long-lasting societal benefits.”

Those assertions have their roots in well-known studies of high-quality preschool programs for poor children, most prominently the High/Scope Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Parent Centers study.

These projects, which sought to improve outcomes primarily for low-income African-American children, began in the 1960s and 1970s and followed the participants through school and into their 30s and 40s. The studies found that on average participants spent less time in special education than non-participants and had higher graduation rates, fewer out-of-wedlock pregnancies, better job histories, less time on welfare, less criminal activity, and other desirable results.

Numerous other studies confirm that good preschools improve educational achievement and produce other benefits, at least in kindergarten and sometimes for longer. For example, a 2005 study by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers (NIEER) found that children who attended state-funded preschools in five states had better vocabulary and math scores at the start of kindergarten than children who did not.

A much-contested question is how long the gains persist, as studies of some programs show them fading out in elementary school. In New Jersey, however, a NIEER study of the Abbott preschools in 35 disadvantaged communities found positive effects as late as fifth grade. Participants were on average still three-quarters of an academic year ahead of their non-Abbott peers, and they were significantly less likely to either be held back a grade or routed to special-education services. Two years of preschool provided double the benefits of one year.

Nationally, such studies have swayed political leaders on both side of the aisle. Preschool is not only a top priority for Democrats like President Barack Obama and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently launched a huge public pre-K program, but also for governors and legislators in deeply red states like Oklahoma, which has been a leader in creating universal preschool for poor children.

Universal pre-K also has support from groups like Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, an organization of police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors, attorneys general, and violence survivors that promotes early education as a way to prevent crime and save money.

Advocates often cite preschool’s financial benefits. The Perry study showed that every $1 spent yielded at least $7 worth of benefits, including savings from reduced teen pregnancy and incarceration rates and from improved school performance, as well as higher earnings by participants. The economics of preschool can actually vary considerably from program to program, but they often provide some economic benefits over the initial cost.

NIEER director Steven Barnett has calculated how much every state could save on special education and grade repetition if it provided one year of public pre-K to all children under 200 percent of the poverty line. For New Jersey the figure amounts to $855 million a year by 2030, including the cost of the added preschool slots. He said an expansion would also cut families’ childcare costs and create larger social benefits, such as reduced crime and increased lifetime earnings.

The economics of expanding the Abbott program to every poor child in the state would be somewhat different, because Abbott covers two years rather than one. Still, the benefits would “offset a substantial portion of cost,” Barnett said in an email. “The big payoff is in better achievement and more successful adults after they leave school.”

The push for preschool

For now, the legislature is contemplating a considerably smaller expansion.

Currently the state pays for preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in 35 poor districts, regardless of family income, and partially subsidizes programs in some other towns. These include the 31 Abbott districts and four others. In addition, earlier this year a federal grant allowed 17 districts to begin expanding their preschools and turning half-day programs into full-day, but only for low-income 4-year-olds.

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who has been talking up early education for months, this week laid out his plan to expand the 18-year-old Abbott preschool program. He would spend at least $63 million in 2017 and $103 million in 2018 to bring the program to 17 more districts. (They could be the same 17 that began expanding earlier this year.)

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), who is leading the expansion proposal for the senate Democrats, said, “New Jersey is a leader in high-quality preschool education and its programs have been identified as a national model, but too many families still do not have access to these programs.”

“We need to expand early childhood education throughout the state and implement creative ways of funding innovative programs. This is a major step forward in this process,” she said.

A crucial part of his plan is the restoration of “wraparound” childcare subsidies for the Abbott preschools. Those subsidies, provided by the Department of Human Services, used to pay for before-care, after-care and summer school for all preschoolers in the 35 districts. The afterschool component allowed low-income working parents to leave their children at school all day and encouraged enrollment, according to program directors and early education advocates.

But over the past eight years the state has slashed the wraparound money and required parents to work or attend school for a specified number of hours in order to qualify. Funding plummeted from $102 million in 2009 to $17 million this year, participation fell from 32,000 to 4,500 children, and the lack of after-care may have harmed efforts to meet enrollment goals.

Though Sweeney has not specified how much he wants to spend to restore the childcare subsidies, his proposal was welcomed by advocates like Cecilia Zalkind, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey and one of Pre-K Our Way’s leaders.

“The plan will include an important provision to restore wraparound programs for children in existing Abbott Districts. This is a win not only for our youngest citizens, but for the future of our state,” she said.

Doubts about long-term impacts

Opponents of publicly funded preschools, or of school expansions of the type proposed by Sweeney, say research does not uniformly support large investments in such programs. In particular, the argument that preschool’s benefits can fade out after a few years has gained currency in the political debate over early education.

“There’s really some serious questions about the effectiveness of some these pre-K program,” said Mike Proto, spokesman for the New Jersey chapter of Americans for Prosperity. “The research on the subject suggests that by around the third grade, most kids catch up if they haven’t gotten pre-K education.”

Doherty cited fade-out as one reason he opposes the Abbott preschool program. The NIEER study found that, in New Jersey, the benefits persist through fifth grade and perhaps longer. Some other studies do support arguments about fade-out, though the nuances tend to get lost in the debate.

Critics point to a large, well-regarded study of the federal Head Start program for poor children that found the early positive impacts were gone by the time the kids were in third grade. The students did no worse than their counterparts who had not gone through Head Start, but no better, either. While the program does seem to get disadvantaged children ready for elementary school, critics say taxpayers’ big investment should be yielding better outcomes.

Another recent study that has gotten much attention looked at Tennessee’s preschools for low-income kids. Participating children initially performed better than the non-preschoolers, but by the end of kindergarten the non-preschoolers had caught up, and in second and third grade the children who had attended pre-K were actually doing worse on various measures of academics and behavior.

Part of the reason may be that program quality varies widely. Head Start is a huge national program and the curricula, teacher qualifications, class sizes, and other factors differ from center to center. New Jersey and a few other states have public preschools with tougher standards and better results, making Head Start’s outcomes seem relatively poor. At the same time, some states have weaker programs; according to Barnett, Tennessee’s program is underfunded and lacks a quality-control mechanism.

Barnett, a leading researcher on preschool quality and a stalwart proponent of public pre-K programs, rejects the fade-out argument. While impacts grow smaller as children get older, a survey of all the available research “finds substantial positive effects on achievement, special education, grade retention, and social behavior at ages 10 and higher,” he writes. “If you look at all the research -- don’t cherry pick for results -- it shows that long-term effects are robust even if smaller than initial effects.”

Another area of critique focuses on the quality of the studies. The Perry and Abecedarian projects, as well as the Head Start impact study, were true experiments, where children were randomly admitted or denied entry into the programs, and then tracked for years. Though not immune from flaws, they are considered the gold standard for research quality. Setting up experiments is not always possible, however, so researchers use other methods to compare groups of children.

NIEER’s New Jersey study, which is actually two studies, has received some criticism for its methods. In the first phase, Barnett and his colleagues compared children who got into Abbott preschools to children who just missed the enrollment cutoff because they were too young. While the two groups of kids should be very similar, analysts like the Brookings Institution’s Grover Whitehurst say the method introduces potential problems.

First, some of the enrolled Abbott students dropped out, perhaps because of family or behavioral problems that also would have affected their academic achievement, Whitehurst says. He argues that could make the program seem more successful than it really was. Second, since the non-enrolled kids were a bit younger, they may have been less likely to end up in any type of preschool that year. If they had been as old as the Abbott kids, more would have been in private preschool and done as well as the Abbott students, leading to less impressive study findings, he contends.

Barnett acknowledged that the method, while widely used, is not perfect. But he said it was used to evaluate other preschool programs and found they had no impact, suggesting that the method is not overly biased toward positive results. There is also no evidence that the issues Whitehurst raised distorted the results, he said.

The much-celebrated findings about the impact through fifth grade are based on a second phase of research, which compared former Abbott preschoolers with a random group of similar children who had not attended the program. It’s not clear why they didn’t attend; again, they could have problems that impact their academic achievement and contaminate the study.

In the study, Barnett describes them as a “conventional comparison group.” Some of them may have gone to private preschools, but that would diminish the positive findings for the Abbotts rather than inflate them, he says.

Fundamental opposition to public preschool

New Jersey’s preschools were created by order of the state Supreme Court, which ruled that they were necessary in the 31 poor Abbott districts to reduce the disadvantages their children face. Four other low-income districts then voluntarily joined in. For conservative critics, getting the state involved in education of children younger than five was the first mistake.

“There is no constitutional mandate to provide 3- and 4-year-olds fully funded preschool paid for by the state of New Jersey,” Doherty said. “So when the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to fund preschool in certain districts, I believe that was outside the authority granted the state government under the New Jersey Constitution.”

While the state preschools are not mandatory or universal, they still evoke fears of government intrusion; this type of concern, in amplified form, leads some parents to homeschool their children. Other opponents say the expansion of public pre-K education threatens to wipe out private preschools that some families prefer and generally impinges on parents’ right to decide how to raise their kids; for example, by stigmatizing those who want to keep them at home until kindergarten.

“We basically disagree with the decision that was handed down by the court, and we would much rather see the parents generally in charge in making of these decisions,” Proto said. “We view it as an activist decision.”

Another source of opposition is the perception that preschool does not count as education. When he first ran for governor, Chris Christie referred to the Abbott preschools as “babysitting,” and though he later said he was only criticizing a proposed expansion of the program, that sentiment persists among some of Abbott’s critics.

The biggest factor in resistance to public preschools, however, may be resentment over the cost of aiding poor urban communities. The opposition dovetails with anger over the larger court-imposed school funding formula, which requires the state to cover most of the costs of running the 31 Abbott districts.

Doherty is one of many Republican legislators who have called the system unfair to suburban districts that receive little state aid and fund their schools almost entirely with local property taxes. He has proposed amending the constitution to make it clear that the governor and legislature may cut aid to the poor districts and distribute it more evenly around the state without fear of court intervention.

Unfair and expensive?

Given the belief that preschool has no effect beyond third grade, and the continued struggles of urban school districts to boost achievement generally, it’s clear the current funding formula isn’t working, Doherty says.

As an example of the formula’s unfairness, he often notes that Hoboken and Jersey City remain Abbott districts with state-funded schools despite their influx of development and wealth in recent years. He says their state-education aid allows them to keep property tax bills low and grant abatements to developers on the dime of taxpayers elsewhere. At the least, the Abbott designations should be updated to reflect current economic conditions, he says.

He said a better alternative to the Abbott system are charter schools, which he contends offer higher-quality education at lower cost.

Doherty also argues that, considering the crises over the state’s inadequate pension fund and nearly depleted Transportation Trust Fund, it should not be pouring money into preschools in a select group of towns that may not work. Taxes are already high, and expansion advocates have talked about raising corporate, cigarette, or gambling taxes further to cover the cost of an expansion.

Individual towns can always open a preschool if they want, he said, and pay for it themselves.

Preschool advocates respond, essentially, that the state should fix its economic problems and address unequal distribution of aid by spending more rather than less. Pre-K Our Way member Sam Crane, a former state treasurer under Gov. James Florio, said a preschool expansion would help some of the less prosperous suburbs that are currently groaning under their tax burdens, and thus deserves their legislators’ votes.

“They should be supporting this program, because this money's not going to the Abbotts. This is going to their school districts,” Crane said. “If I am concerned about the Abbott flow, the first thing I should do is stand up and be for this expansion, because it's giving my young children, in my school districts, an opportunity, a shot.”

Improving educational outcomes for more low-income children would make the state a more attractive place to raise a family, create a better workforce, and reduce crime and other social problems, advocates say. Free preschool also allows low-income parents to work instead of staying home with their children. “Making these investments is going to save us so much money later,” Sweeney said at an NJ Spotlight conference on pre-K earlier this year.

“When you stop investing in yourself, you fall behind economically,” Crane said. “The notion that there is a zero-sum game, or that we will never be able to invest in ourselves or our children, is a defeatist attitude and leads frankly to economic decline. There's a reason Oklahoma is doing pre-K -- not exactly a liberal state. It isn't about a handout. It is a strategically thought-through educational investment that pays off down the road, or they wouldn't be doing it.”

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