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PROMISE ALREADY BROKEN? PRE-K EXPANSION IN TROUBLE

November 10, 2008 – Newark, NJ

The State commitment to expand preschool to New Jersey's high poverty communities and poor children appears in jeopardy even before districts submit their first-year plans.

In recent comments, including remarks to the NJ School Boards Association, Governor Jon Corzine has signaled that the funding needed to expand preschool may not be provided in the upcoming State budget and that the planned expansion could be delayed due to projected budget shortfalls.

And a recent memorandum to school districts from State education officials suggests that districts may want to delay rolling out the preschool program to future years.

Expansion of the nationally recognized Abbott preschool program beyond the 31 special needs districts covered under the landmark Abbott v. Burke education equity case is the centerpiece of the new school funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA) -- enacted last January. SFRA requires the expansion of Abbott preschool to all 3- and 4- year olds in an additional 82 high poverty districts, and to all disadvantaged children in the remaining districts statewide. Districts have the next five years to phase-in the program which, when fully implemented, will add 30,000 children to the 40,000 now served in the special needs or "Abbott" districts.

When fully phased-in, the expansion program is estimated to cost $330 million. The State currently provides $520 million to fund the preschool program in Abbott districts.

The timing of the Governor’s statements about a delay in preschool funding couldn’t be worse. The high poverty districts required to provide "universal" preschool must submit a five-year plan for program implementation, including a plan for serving children in the first year, by November 15. Those districts serving preschool "targeted" to low income children must submit plans in December. (View tables for the estimated numbers of eligible children in "universal" and "targeted" districts.)

District officials are understandably dismayed by the news that preschool funding may be on the budgetary chopping block. Local educators have already invested significant time and resources in the complicated task of assembling classrooms, teachers and other supports to launch the program to as many children as possible in September 2009.

Just a few months ago, Governor Corzine stressed the critical importance of expanding the Abbott preschool program statewide. The Governor’s FY2009 Budget refers to the success of the Abbott program and describes the planned expansion as "an exciting and promising opportunity to replicate the gains that have been made in the Abbott districts in other communities across the state."

As late as September 8th, Governor Corzine professed his pride in the "historic expansion in state-funded high quality preschool" during an address delivered at the newly opened Newark Central High School.

The success of Abbott preschool was also touted by the top education advisor to President-elect Barack Obama in a recent pre-election debate at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Noted educator Linda Darling Hammond of Stanford University cited Abbott preschool, along with other strategic investments ordered in the Abbott court case, as "narrowing significantly" the achievement gap in the Garden State

There is no doubt that preschool is a smart investment, paying significant short- and long-term benefits. A report released in June 2007 by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University (NIEER) documented "substantial gains in learning and development" in urban school children who had participated in Abbott preschools. Studies demonstrate that the achievement gap between at-risk students and their more advantaged peers decreases significantly when the former attended high quality pre-k. When compared to non-participants, at-risk children who attend quality preschool are more likely to succeed in school, graduate from high school, attend college and earn higher wages.

Economic studies by NIEER and others show that pre-kindergarten is an excellent public investment that yields significant fiscal returns, reduces spending on crime and remedial and special education, generates increased tax revenues, and improves short- and long-term outcomes for children, families and communities.

The SFRA law contains a solemn promise to expand preschool to New Jersey’s most disadvantaged children. Even though the State budget may be tight, now is not the time to break, or even delay, that promise. ELC is calling on advocates, parents, educators, business leaders and others who care about investing in New Jersey’s future to join the campaign in the coming months to make sure that promise is kept by the Governor and Legislature – now, not later.

For more information, contact:
Sharon Krengel, ELC Outreach Coordinator
skrengel@edlawcenter.org