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Op-Ed: Celebrating Our Preschool Success

Research has found that the Abbott program produces persistent academic gains through the fifth grade for children enrolled in two years of preschool and narrowed achievement gaps — among other benefits

zalkind, barnett, sciarra
Cecilia Zalkind, W. Steven Barnett, and David Sciarra

Twenty years ago, New Jersey pioneered high-quality preschool for children in poor communities to prepare them for kindergarten. Today, this program has revolutionized the delivery of early education in our state and has improved school readiness and outcomes for at-risk children.

Legal, education, and social-justice advocates recently gathered to mark this milestone during a conference co-sponsored by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, Education Law Center, ETS, and the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The Abbott preschool program resulted from an order by the New Jersey Supreme Court in the Abbott v. Burke litigation, challenging the state’s failure to provide resources and funding necessary to give children in high-poverty urban districts a “thorough and efficient” education as mandated by the state’s constitution.

Groundbreaking remedies

The court ordered several groundbreaking remedies, including equalizing K-12 funding between wealthy and poor districts and, perhaps most important, the first-in-the-nation directive to provide “well-planned, high-quality” preschool for all three- and four-year-olds residing in urban neighborhoods.

All programs were required to adhere to a rigorous set of high-quality standards, including certified teachers, small class sizes, developmentally appropriate curriculum, and supports for teachers and parents. Participating programs received state funding based on the actual cost of those essential resources.

This mixed-delivery, universal system of preschool now serves 45,000 children in Newark, Camden, Paterson and 28 other cities.

A key to the program’s success is a highly qualified teacher leading each preschool classroom.

All teachers in Abbott classrooms, including those in childcare centers and Head Start, are now certified in early education. All are paid salaries comparable to public school teachers. All receive continuous professional development. New Jersey has elevated and professionalized its preschool teaching workforce.

And this investment in Abbott preschool is already paying huge dividends. Research on the Abbott Preschool Program by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found the program produces persistent academic gains through the fifth grade for children enrolled in two years of preschool, narrowed achievement gaps, and reduced grade retention and special education placement rates — yielding considerable savings for school districts and the state.

The Abbott program provides a roadmap for the way forward. This means fulfilling a legislative mandate to expand preschool to communities and low-income children across the state.

In launching Abbott preschool in 1998, our Supreme Court was “convinced that preschool for three- and four-year-olds will have a significant and substantial positive impact on academic achievement in both early and later school years.” We now know the Court had it right.

David Sciarra is executive director of the Education Law Center, directing ELC’s legal and policy advocacy program and serving as lead counsel in the landmark Abbott v. Burke litigation.

W. Steven Barnett is an economist and founder, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education.

Cecilia Zalkind is president/CEO of Advocates for Children in New Jersey. She argued before the New Jersey Supreme Court on preschool standards in Abbott v. Burke.

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