by Stacy Lee
Managing Director, Early Childhood Project Integration
Children Now (CA)
This past October, I had the privilege of participating in a 3-day site visit supported by the Alliance for Early Success in partnership with Advocates for Children of New Jersey. The focus of the visit was to share the story and lessons learned first from New Jersey’s implementation of a court order requiring expansion of high quality preschool programs to address inequities in their education system and how that first step led to the development of the state’s broader early learning system. The visit provided advocates from across country the opportunity to hear the inspiring story of how they have been transforming their early learning programs – from birth through 3rd grade – over the past 20 years.
BACKGROUND ON NEW JERSEY ABBOTT COURT CASE
In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruling in Abbott v. Burke became the first judicial directive in the country that public education in the state’s poorest school districts must provide a “high quality, well-planned preschool program starting at age three.” The ruling focused on creating parity for urban schools with suburban schools in K-12 and a focus on equity to “wipe out the disadvantages” present for children in low income districts. The team from the Education Law Center who argued the case brought evidence that children started behind in kindergarten, thus leading to early learning as a key intervention in the Abbott ruling. The court agreed with the experts and ruled that children in low income, urban school districts would benefit from high quality, comprehensive approaches the research supported. This was ultimately about doing what was right for kids.
The court’s adoption of the definition of “high quality, well-planned preschool” was the result of a consensus of more than 40 early childhood stakeholders, including school district leaders, early learning providers, higher education, education associations and others, who came together to outline what they believed high quality, well planned preschool should include. As a result of the court decision and subsequent policy changes, New Jersey’s state funded preschool includes: A full day (six hour) program; a teacher with a BA and specialized training in early childhood education and a teacher’s assistant in every class; a maximum class size of 15 students; appropriate facilities; a developmentally appropriate curriculum; comprehensive services including health and transportation; adequate funding for community and district providers; and master teachers in every district. While 31 districts are included as part of the Court decision, New Jersey is in the midst of expanding this state-funded preschool to school districts throughout the state.
Aim high, and support the transition
One of the most controversial discussions amongst the coalition of stakeholders at the outset was about the requirement that preschool teachers would need a 4-year bachelor’s degree and a P-3 teaching certificate. At the time, the certificate did not exist and many teachers in private provider and Head Start programs did not possess these degrees. At the end of the day the coalition agreed that attaining that degree and specialized training would help ensure high quality. The Court adopted the group’s recommendations and set a 4-year timeline to meet this standard. The coalition then advocated for robust supports to help the educators, which resulted in significant funding for scholarships and for substitutes, among other supports. By attaining higher degrees and credentials, these educators earned a significant increase in salary as changes in state policy required pay parity with public school teachers in order to ensure a stable work force.
Providers we met on the site visit described the transformations they began to see with their staff: becoming more financially stable, buying cars and having their own children attend and finish college. It is also notable the Abbott preschools were implemented as a mixed delivery system. While the funding flows through the school districts, the ruling stated that districts must work with providers willing to meet the requirements and further said districts “shall not duplicate programs or services otherwise available in the community,” leading districts to contract with local community providers. Several of the site visits included centers that also provide infant and toddler care – all with a strong emphasis on ensuring quality parameters to support the healthy development of their children in low income neighborhoods that are then linked with the child’s next early learning environment—preschool.
Don’t let fear determine the path forward
The cascading, positive effects on the workforce that resulted from increased educational attainment and higher salaries for providers were not the center of the conversation during the early days of the coalition. Fear, doubt about the unknown future and potential loss of what was familiar dominated the concerns of providers. However, the positive impacts on the field are notable and deserve much more attention. The longitudinal evaluation of the Abbott preschool programs are indeed showing that the emphasis on quality and resources invested toward that goal are making a difference: children who attend the Abbott preschool programs, in public and private settings, improve in language, literacy, and math at least through the end of their kindergarten year. In addition, they found that children who participated in two years of the Abbott preschool significantly outperform those who attend one year or none at all. In recent news, New Jersey’s new Governor Murphy recently announced new resources to expand the Abbott Preschool program for the first time in nearly a decade.
There are few places in the country that would not benefit from taking a closer look at the Abbott Preschool story. We know that early learning as a field overall continues to struggle with some of the same questions that New Jersey had to grapple with, particularly in the first few years of transition to implement the program. Definitions of quality, scale, workforce development, facilities and funding are key decision points that state leaders and advocates need to carefully and thoughtfully negotiate. We are extremely grateful to our advocacy partners at the Alliance for Early Success and The Advocates for Children New Jersey for taking the time to share their invaluable lessons learned on a site visit that will surely reap benefits for children across the country.