Biden wants universal preschool. NJ will be a test on how to get it done

For two decades, New Jersey built a model preschool program. The president has called to expand that but exactly how is still to be determined
Credit: (Chip Somodevilla/Pool via AP)
April 28, 2021: President Joe Biden addresses a joint session of Congress in the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

For all of New Jersey’s gains in building a nationally recognized preschool program over the past two decades, the reality is it is still serving only about a third of eligible children, if that.

Now President Joe Biden has expanded the possibilities, in announcing in his address to Congress this week his American Families Plan, which would invest an additional $200 billion in federal funds to bring universal preschool to every state.

Early childhood advocates in New Jersey welcomed the announcement, saying the funds and focus could make a significant difference. One recent estimate from the National Institute for Early Education Research said a truly universal program for all 3- and 4-year olds would cost an additional $1.7 billion.

READ: Once a struggle, NJ’s preschool program now a national leader

More than just money

But advocates also said Thursday that there are many components beyond funding needed to bring truly universal “high-quality” programs to the state, as Biden promised.

“Key ingredients of universal pre-K are a high-quality standard, a well-prepared and well-compensated workforce, universal access and a coordinated approach that engages all partners in delivering the program,” said Cecilia Zalkind, president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

Zalkind stressed that Biden’s plan is especially promising by also including support for other child-care initiatives in the even younger years.

“New Jersey’s high-quality preschool program has put us on the path to universal quality,” she said in an email. “It is exciting that we have the chance to expand that to include all children, from birth to five.”

Largely due to the Abbott v. Burke school-equity litigation of the past 30 years that ordered universal preschool in the state’s neediest districts, New Jersey has been one of the leading states in building what is deemed a high-quality program for both 3- and 4-year-olds.

Under the orders and now standards ingrained in the system, state-funded preschools in districts like Newark, Camden and Paterson have certified teachers, limited class sizes and fully developed curricula.

The legacy of Abbott v. Burke

In recent years, more than 40,000 children in the state have been enrolled in such programs. In addition, the state has expanded the reach into scores of other districts, with close to 55,000 statewide now under state-funded programs. Nevertheless, there are as many as 200,000 3-to-4-year-old children who could be attending such programs.

Gov. Phil Murphy has proposed in his next state budget even further expansion with an additional $50 million, bringing the total spent to more than $900 million. His administration praised Biden’s focus on expanding it further.

“Given our experience with delivering high-quality preschool in New Jersey and Gov. Murphy’s historic investment to expand these programs even more, we know that high-quality preschool is a game changer,” said Cary Booker, the state’s assistant commissioner for Early Childhood Education.”

“We look forward to any additional support that may stem from President Biden’s vision,” he added,  “so we can bring this kind of quality preschool to even more children in New Jersey.”

 But even if approved by Congress, none of this will likely happen quickly, and the programs face shorter-term challenges in the meantime. For one, the pandemic has taken a toll on all the state’s schools, especially in the youngest grades and the preschool programs.

The Education Law Center, the advocacy group that has led the Abbott litigation, this week released an analysis that found a steep drop-off in enrollment in Abbott’s preschool programs over the past year, from over 40,000 in 2019 to just over 32,000 enrolled in the 2020–2021 school year. It also showed a drop in non-Abbott programs as well, although smaller.

“COVID-19 has exacerbated many existing disparities and compounded the disadvantages facing low-income children,” said Jason Pedraza, an ELC staff attorney. “That’s why the state must address the sharp decline in enrollments and any instructional delays and make every effort to support students who have lost this crucial educational opportunity this year.”

Still, Biden’s announcement drew praise from ELC’s executive director, David Sciarra, as an important steppingstone.

“President Biden is right,” Sciarra said in an email. “The US will not be able to boost educational attainment unless all children are afforded the opportunity to attend well-planned, high-quality preschool. The Biden Administration and Congress need look no further than New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program for a model for the nation.

“New Jersey is a national leader in high-quality preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds for a reason, and we know the value of providing low-income children with this early learning advantage.”