David Sciarra at State House event
David Sciarra at State House event. (Photo: Micaela Bedell for Strategies for Children)

In 1998, in the landmark Abbott v. Burke school finance ruling that the New York Times called “the most significant education case” since Brown v. Board of Education, the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered the state to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten in 31 districts with the largest concentrations of low-income families. Fifteen years later, New Jersey has built a nationally recognized, large-scale system of early education that embeds quality across the private and public settings where young children learn. The latest report from a longitudinal study of the program finds substantial benefits that persist through fifth grade.

The New Jersey experience carries lessons for states across the country, but has particular resonance here in Massachusetts, which has focused its early education policy on improving quality throughout a mixed delivery system that includes public school pre-kindergarten, community-based centers, Head Start and family child care.

This was the message two New Jersey leaders delivered at a standing-room-only State House briefing yesterday attended by more than 50 legislators, legislative staff and educators. It was the message W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute of Early Education Research, delivered in Washington yesterday when he released fifth grade results from the longitudinal study of children who were in an Abbott class for 4-year-olds in 2004-5. NIEER found a 10-20% narrowing of the achievement gap for children who had one year in an Abbott preschool and a narrowing of 20-40% for children who had two years of preschool. (Read the news release. Read the study.)

“Children who attended one year of the program score higher in language arts and literacy, math, and science. Those who attended two years make even larger gains so that by 5th grade they are nearly a year ahead of those who did not attend pre-kindergarten. Both grade retention and special education were substantially lower for those who attended Abbott pre-k. New Jersey has already started saving money by the prevention of school failure,” Barnett writes in a Boston Globe op-ed.

“These findings not only rebut those who assert that pre-k is a waste of money because gains inevitably fade out, but they also point to the importance of high quality in ensuring persistent gains,” he writes. “Adopting a version of the New Jersey model of universal pre-K would secure Massachusetts’ position as a leader in education and do much to ensure that the commonwealth maintains its top position in achievement nationally and internationally as we move through the 21st century.”

Yesterday’s State House briefing comes as the Legislature considers Governor Patrick’s proposed $131 million in new investments for high-quality early education in fiscal year 2014. The briefing was hosted by Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz and Representative Alice Peisch, co-chairs of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education, and by Strategies for Children.

A number of factors contribute to New Jersey’s success. With Abbott school districts lacking the capacity to add two years of preschool within their buildings, the court ordered them to utilize community-based providers and Head Start. It required teachers in all settings, public and private, to have bachelor’s degrees and certification in early childhood – and established a scholarship to help early educators meet this requirement. Once community-based early educators achieved certification, their pay was raised to be comparable with public school salaries. All settings meet state preschool standards, which are aligned with K-12, and all settings utilize research-based curriculum. The Abbott preschools are state-funded, with money flowing through school districts to public pre-kindergartens, community-based providers and Head Start.

Currently, 45,000 young children – a participation rate of close to 90% in the targeted districts — attend an Abbott preschool, with 56% attending pre-kindergarten in community-based settings and 44% attending pre-kindergarten in public schools. Nearly every Abbott preschool classroom, regardless of setting, has achieved a score of at least 5 (out of 7) on the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale (ECERS-R).

“This is truly a national model for mixed delivery,” Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst with Advocates for Children of New Jersey, told the briefing audience.

Implementation of the court’s original 1998 order evolved over the years, with subsequent rulings in 2000 and 2002. “They’re masterful policy briefs on what we need to do to build a system of high-quality early education system to prepare children for kindergarten and ultimately close achievement gaps,” David Sciarra, executive director of the Newark-based Education Law Center and attorney for the Abbott plaintiffs, said at the briefing. “We’re not going to close achievement gaps for poor kids in poor districts, not just in Massachusetts but across the country, unless every child has high-quality pre-k like this.”

In 2008, New Jersey enacted the School Financing Reform Act, designed to extend the Abbott model to districts across the state. It calls for universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in districts where more than 40% of children are from low-income families and for targeted services for low-income children in other districts. The law, however, has yet to be funded and implemented.

The existing Abbott program costs New Jersey $650 million annually, through the state’s general fund. The state budget, Rice noted, includes $1 billion for the correctional system.

“Quality costs money. We have two things. We have high standards, and we’re well-funded. That’s what makes the difference,” Rice said. “We’re going to pay one way or another. Wouldn’t it be better if we paid for it up front and put the investment in young children?”