Op-Ed: Why pre-K by itself is not enough to produce strong readers

Gordon MacInnes | June 30, 2021 | Opinion, Education
It would take a relatively modest sum to make a big impact on early literacy efforts
Gordon MacInnes

Where does New Jersey lead the nation on things that count? We know that NJ Transit isn’t the model commuter rail system and that Rutgers doesn’t rank with Michigan, UT Austin or UC Berkeley, the best public universities, and that our tax burdens are not the envy of a single state.

Here’s where we’re the national leader: New Jersey provides the highest-quality pre-K for kids from poor families. And this is a product not of gubernatorial or legislative actions but of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decisions in the decades-long Abbott v. Burke case.

At a crossroads

But we’re now at a crossroads where New Jersey needs to step up with an effort to connect pre-K to an essential early literacy program in the K-3 years. Otherwise, the potential benefits of pre-K will dissipate. It’s one thing to launch a vital new program in public schools or with nonprofits, but it’s much tougher to help seasoned teachers, supervisors and principals change their ways as better-prepared kids arrive in the early elementary grades.

In 1995, the court added two years of pre-K schooling to the 31 urban districts and directed that there be a strong literacy effort in the K-4 years. And when the Legislature enacted the School Funding Reform Act in 2008, the court retained its authority over pre-K (and school buildings and security guards) but not over its early reading mandate. Most of the Abbott districts that did best in producing literate third graders stayed with it; those who had not bothered focused elsewhere.

From academic analyses, we know the benefits of pre-K for kids from poor families pretty much disappear by second grade, which means that their chances of finishing high school and attending college also disappear. But we also know from the 20-plus years of Abbott that kids in districts that do the hard work of focusing on early literacy produce more high school grads and college attendees.

Look at Union City

Union City, for example, has one of the highest counts of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch, a quarter of whom are English language learners, but it graduates 90% of its students, and 70% of them attend college.

Thanks to a smart, well-financed lobbying effort by Pre-K Our Way (aided by the cherubic nature of 3- and 4-year-olds), the Legislature, beginning in Gov. Chris Christie’s last year and continuing during the Murphy administration, has expanded pre-K opportunities to an additional 121 districts, most with kids predominantly from poor families. The crucial difference between the new pre-K districts and the ex-Abbott districts is that many of them are very small, bordering on tiny (54 are pre-K-5 to pre-K-8 districts that enroll fewer than 1,000 students).

So here’s the question that deserves close attention: what can the governor, the Legislature and the state Department of Education do to ensure that pre-K graduates become strong readers by the time they finish third grade? Right now, this is a question that is not receiving any noticeable attention from any of the key players.

Gov. Phil Murphy inherited an effectively bankrupt state. Other than increasing the state’s pension funding for public employees, he did increase pre-K in his first three budgets and has included a fourth increase in his 2022 budget.

The Biden administration’s unprecedented financial assistance to the states should open the door to a modest appropriation to build the state DOE’s capacity to work with small districts with lots of kids from poor families to build the literacy bridge to the K-3 years.

A modest sum

One million dollars would do to get it started this year, to pay for recruiting experienced literacy specialists, one of whom would supervise seven or eight others in regional offices to work with those districts that have launched pre-K in the last four years. By next year, this effort would be doubled and require a $2.5 million appropriation.

The leaders of the Legislature — the Senate president, Assembly speaker, majority leaders, chairs of the key committees — were given very little time between receipt of more than $3 billion in federal assistance in May and the required approval of the 2022 budget in June.

Yes, a $1 million supplement to the state DOE budget for essential work with scores of districts is barely noticeable, but time is running out. Legislators are understandably concentrating on big appropriations like property-tax relief and debt reduction, but it should be easy for legislative leaders to add $1 million to the fiscal year 2022 budget to begin a necessary effort to make strong readers of kids from poor families in pre-K districts.

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