Op-Ed: Leaving New Jersey’s Young Children Out in the Cold

W. Steven Barnett | January 4, 2017 | Opinion
Shouldn’t every impoverished child in New Jersey be given the assistance he or she needs regardless of where they happen to live in the state?

W. Steven Barnett
Head Start was created in 1965 to help children and families overcome the disadvantages of poverty, but today it covers less than half of the 3- and 4-year-olds eligible for the early education, health care, and family programs offered. A new report by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) reveals that inadequate federal funding for Head Start has resulted in disparities from state to state in funding, classroom hours, quality, and percentage of low-income children served.

In New Jersey, just 8 percent of low-income children under age 5 are enrolled in Head Start programs, below the national average of 10 percent, according to our “State(s) of Head Start” report. Funding for both Early Head Start and Head Start in New Jersey also falls just below the national average, when adjusted for cost of living.

What happens to the children not covered by Head Start? New Jersey is one of 42 states to offer some children publicly funded preschool. State pre-K serves about 24 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds, according to our “2015 State of Preschool Yearbook” — but in fewer than 40 of the state’s more than 600 school districts.

When we add up Head Start and state pre-K in New Jersey we serve about 25 percent of children at age 3 and 35 percent at age 4. That still leaves too many of our most vulnerable young children out in the cold when it comes to early education, and the hard truth is that even middle-income families struggle to find good preschool programs they can afford on their own.

“State(s) of Head Start” is the first report to examine Head Start and Early Head Start data from all 50 states. We found disparities across the country, with both Head Start and Early Head Start funding per child varying by nearly 100 percent across the states after controlling for cost-of-living differences. Observed classroom quality, particularly around instruction related to children’s cognitive and language development also varies state by state. New Jersey does well on quality, despite the fact that it is shortchanged on Head Start funding compared with the needs of the state’s children.

We can think of no reason that poor children in one state are less deserving of a strong early childhood program than those in another. Similarly, shouldn’t every impoverished young child in New Jersey be given this assistance regardless of where they happen to live in the state?

Our findings of disparities and lack of access underscore the need for greater coordination between Head Start and state and local government agencies to build high-quality early-learning programs with more widespread reach and adequate funding.

States have been stepping up, recognizing the benefits today and the long-term savings for tomorrow.

State funded pre-K served almost 1.4 million children in 2014-2015, an increase of 37,167 children from the previous year, according to our “2015 State of Preschool Yearbook.” However, expansion of public pre-K has a long way to go before it makes programs available everywhere, and far too many fall short on quality. And when it comes to quality, New Jersey sets the bar for programs that work.

New Jersey’s preschool program launched in the Abbott school districts decades ago has been proven by research to be both excellent and effective — a great example of the good a state can do. Unfortunately, children in most of the New Jersey’s school districts don’t have access to comparable preschools. Gov. Chris Christie earlier this year vetoed $22 million to expand access — and the Legislature did not override that veto.

Our study of Head Start makes it clear that the federal government falls short of providing adequate funds to ensure that most, much less all, children in low-income families get the help they need to prepare for school success. The “State(s) of Head Start” also highlights the crucial role state-funded preschool plays for young children. Our congressional delegation should press for the federal government to do more. At the same time, the state of New Jersey should expand its own programs — and partner with Head Start — to serve more young children and their families in New Jersey’s own highly successful program. As we contemplate the new year, and lately, what it’s like to be left out in the cold, let’s resolve to help Trenton set the right priorities for our tax dollars.