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MASSACHUSETTS COURT RECOMMENDS PRESCHOOL FOR ALL AT-RISK 3- AND 4-YEAR OLDS

In a ruling similar to New Jersey's Abbott case, a Massachusetts judge, in declaring that state's school funding system unconstitutional, directed the Commonwealth to provide a free, public preschool program for all low-income children, children with disabilities, and children with limited English proficiency. In the April 26, 2004 decision in Hancock v. Driscoll, Judge Margot Botsford not only recommended revamping the K-12 school funding formula, but also specifically directed the State to include a high quality preschool program in its cost determination.

As in Abbott, the court's preschool directive was based on extensive evidence on the benefits of high quality preschool education for children at risk of school failure. The court relied on the testimony of Dr. Steve Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers, and several research studies demonstrating the benefits of high quality preschool for at risk children. These benefits, cited by the court, include improving children's school readiness, socialization skills and school performance and, in the long term, increased high school graduation rates and college attendance, better employment and reduced crime. The court also adopted Dr. Barnett's standards for high quality preschool - prepared and well-paid teachers, small classes, and high standards for learning and teaching.

The court relied on evidence that children in four low-wealth Massachusetts school districts start kindergarten far behind their more affluent peers. As the court found, "the evidence has demonstrated that if high quality preschool programs are not provided, the Commonwealth will not be in a position to fulfill its obligation to educate all the children …because at least some of these children start out so far behind, a situation exacerbated by the lack of adequate early childhood education."

Plaintiffs' attorney Michael Weisman considers the court's preschool ruling one of the most significant and far-reaching remedies in the case, and "absolutely correct" given the overwhelming evidence of the importance of high quality preschool programs for children at risk of school failure.

Starting at 3, an initiative at Education Law Center supporting efforts to establish the legal right to preschool education, provided technical support on the preschool claim to Mr. Weisman and his colleagues, and to advocates who supported the case.