The Case for Preschool

Advocates push for early education—but at what cost?

Teacher Haley Blanchard works on writing skills with four year old Sophia Blanco at the Rainbow Montessori School in Madison, N.J.
Photo by John O'Boyle

Four-year-old Avery Fischer knows how to count to 10 in Spanish, write her name and spell yes and no. But she might not have known how to do those things if her parents had not moved from Mays Landing to Vineland a few years ago.

“In Mays Landing, we would have had to pay $1,500 a month, give or take a few hundred dollars, to send Avery to preschool,” says Sean Fischer, Avery’s dad. The family probably would have been able to swing that, he says—Sean is an administrator at Rowan University, and Irena, Avery’s mother, owns a marketing company in Vineland. But Vineland, one of 35 districts in New Jersey where preschool tuition is free, made more sense when it came to securing early education for Avery.

Some friends and neighbors they left behind in Mays Landing may not be able to afford their children’s on-ramp to kindergarten. “Preschool is definitely cost prohibitive for some people we knew there,” says Fischer.

The Fischers are not the only family that has made the decision to move to one of the New Jersey municipalities with state-funded preschool. Ruth Piatt, co-owner of Little Lamb Preschool, where Avery is a student, says every year she meets new parents who have relocated to Vineland for the sake of their little ones’ early education.

Preschool enrollment is also up in Jersey City and Hoboken, confirms Ellen Wolock, co-administrator of the Division of Early Childhood Education and Family Engagement at the state Department of Education. And that’s not just because Hoboken and Jersey City are considered cool places to live. Rather, school administrators say, it’s a direct result of the opportunity for free, high-quality education for 3- and 4-year-olds.

First, a primer on why preschool (also known as pre-K) is free in certain municipalities. In 1998, the New Jersey Supreme Court identified 31 so-called Abbott districts (the name stems from a 1985 court case, Abbott v. Burke, brought by the Education Law Center to advocate for poor children). Abbott districts—now referred to as “former Abbott districts” because the rules have been updated—are typically urban districts where poverty is commonplace and the education system found to be constitutionally inadequate. Extra state funding is pumped into the districts, from preschool through grade 12. The communities that have universal, free preschool include the 31 former Abbott districts, whose schools the state is required to fund under the Abbott rulings, and four additional districts—Red Bank, Little Egg Harbor, Fairfield and Woodbine—approved in 2003. All 3- and 4-year-olds in those towns are eligible for free preschool education, regardless of their family’s income. (For a complete list, go to nj.gov/education.)

And it’s not just an average preschool education they’re getting.

“The model that was developed from the Abbott preschool program is one of the best on the planet,” says Steve Barnett, director of the influential, Rutgers-based National Institute for Early Education Research. When President Barack Obama expressed his support for universal preschool for low-income kids in 2013, he cited research from the institute on the long-term benefits of preschool.

“People come from all over the world to learn how we do preschool in New Jersey,” says Barnett. “People from Bermuda have adopted it for their entire country. New York City has adopted a lot from the Abbott program. The Oslo city council sent, I think, 30 people to New Brunswick to learn about educating the children of immigrants this year. And Norway has a very good program.”

Barnett says the New Jersey program is exemplary for several reasons. First, all classes are capped at 15 students. Second, preschool teachers have to be highly educated to land a job here. A bachelor’s degree is required, but many teachers have master’s degrees in early childhood education. And third, employee costs are relatively low because schools don’t need to hire a lot of auxiliary staff members. “The teachers are highly educated and very capable, and the class sizes are small enough that a teacher can take care of a lot of things herself,” Barnett says.

In other words, “it’s an efficiently designed model,” says Barnett. And it works. In a 2013 study, the institute found that by fourth or fifth grade, kids who had attended pre-K in Abbott districts were on average three-quarters of an academic year ahead of their peers who did not. They had been held back a grade less often, and fewer were in special-education programs. In the long-term, such advantages can yield significant taxpayer savings as well as a decrease in dropout rates and even crime rates, says Sam Crane, who served as state treasurer under James Florio and is now spokesperson of a nonprofit lobbying group, Pre-K Our Way.

Pre-K Our Way, whose goal is to expand state funding so it reaches all low-income children in New Jersey, not just the ones in former Abbott districts, exists because of a law passed in 2008 that belly flopped. The School Funding Reform Act expanded free preschool into 102 districts where at least 40 percent of students qualified for free or reduced lunch, and also to individual 3- and 4-year-olds in more affluent towns whose caregivers needed help paying for preschool.

Then came the Great Recession. “The act never got funded,” says Crane. As a result, towns like Manville, which Crane describes as “a solid working-class town that has fallen on hard times,” were out of luck when it came to providing quality preschool for families that could not otherwise afford it. Other towns that would have benefited include Dover, Prospect Park and Belleville.

“What Pre-K Our Way is advocating for is the funding of the 2008 law,” says Crane. The act would have added preschool funding for another 50,000 3- and 4-year-olds. The current program serves 45,875 children, or 24 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds statewide.

The organization’s rumblings have been felt in Trenton, where two former governors, Tom Kean, a Republican, and Florio, a Democrat, wrote a joint letter of support for its work, published in April in the Star-Ledger. Crane says at least one of the state’s gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Phil Murphy, has made Pre-K Our Way’s mission a talking point in his campaign. And some sitting lawmakers don’t need convincing when it comes to the value of preschool.

“If I had a magic wand, I would spend the majority—or a lot—of our money on preschool,” says Democrat Loretta Weinberg, the Senate majority leader. “It’s been proven that the better the preschool experience, the better the child is going to do in elementary school, middle school and high school. It’s really a barometer of how successful a student you’re going to be.”

Weinberg and her legislative colleagues in Trenton took a big step in June, when they included $25 million for preschool expansion in the 2017-2018 budget they sent to Governor Chris Christie. The governor subsequently signed off on the funding. According to Crane, this is the first money appropriated to expand pre-K since the 2008 law was adopted. But he warns that it’s only a first step. News website NJ Spotlight reports that the funding would potentially pay for another 2,500 children to attend full-time preschool.

It helps that Pre-K Our Way’s founder, Brian Maher, has deep pockets. The shipping heir sold his Port Elizabeth company, Maher Terminals, in 2007 for a reported $2.3 billion. So far, he has funded about 70 percent of Pre-K Our Way’s $3 million campaign for preschool expansion. Maher has his reasons for wanting to help low-income families. His father, Michael, worked the docks to put himself through college and law school.

“When I sold my business 10 years ago, I started to focus on what I thought was a significant problem, which is income inequality,” Maher says. “Somebody said, ‘You should really look into early education.’ I started to do that, and I got convinced that preschool is an important part of anybody’s development. If you live in a town like Summit, you can send your kids to private preschool at a cost of $20,000 or $25,000 a year. People in Newark have publicly funded preschool. But people in the middle who can’t afford it? They don’t have any options.”

Few, anyway. Preschool Advantage, a nonprofit whose goals are similar to Pre-K Our Way’s, serves families in Morris and Somerset counties. Instead of campaigning and tangling with politicians, it pays the tuition of 3- and 4-year-olds whose parents can’t afford to. In its 22-year history, the organization has paid tuition for more than 1,300 students to attend 30 partner schools in the two counties. During the 2016-2017 school year, 71 preschoolers in Morris and Somerset counties were Preschool Advantage beneficiaries.

“We’re trying to fill the gaps that nobody else is covering,” says Molly Dunn, Preschool Advantage’s executive director. “In our area, we’re typically looking at families above the federal poverty level. These are families who make $24,300 a year all the way up to close to $70,000 a year. They could be nurses or auto mechanics.” But they don’t have the resources to pay $20,000 to $25,000 in preschool tuition.

“There’s a huge swath of families in that bucket,” Dunn says. “And even if the state expansion of preschool happens, we’re in two of the most affluent counties.” She fears low-income families in those counties won’t get a piece of the expanded funding. “We’re trying to address this need. And the need is growing.”

Preschool advocates say the need is not only growing, it’s urgent—especially for poor and nonwhite children. New Jersey has one of the nation’s largest achievement gaps between affluent and poor students, according to a 2015 report by the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C.

Maher cites Barnett as the individual who convinced him to reach for his wallet and launch Pre-K Our Way. “He’s right in our backyard,” says Maher, “and his institute is at the forefront of these issues. The research they do on how kids who go to preschool outperform their peers is a real eye-opener.”

Crane says it would cost an additional $550 million each year to fully fund implementation of the 2008 School Reform Act, which is the mission of Pre-K Our Way. According to the Education Law Center, the required funding would be calculated via a “weighted student formula,” with funding provided to support the core curriculum for every student, regardless of need. “There are probably about 10 people in the entire state who truly understand how the formula works,” says Crane. “If you try to understand it, your head will explode.”

Based on current preschool support, New Jersey is second in the nation in both overall funding and state spending per child. The annual cost of the program is $611 million, according to the state DOE. Per child, the breakdown is $12,788 for district-run schools and $14,375 for private providers that contract with the districts to run Abbott preschools, such as Little Lamb. (Private providers teach 56 percent of state-supported preschoolers, including youngsters at federally funded Head Start centers for families below the poverty level.)

The state also funds two small programs that provide financial help to needy children and to districts that want to provide pre-K. One of the programs, formerly called Early Childhood Program Aid, provides money to districts that are low-income but not Abbotts. The other, formerly called the Early Launch to Learning Initiative, helps funds classes for 4-year-olds, often in suburbs that include low- and middle-income kids.

Not all of the money directed at New Jersey preschools comes from its taxpayers. There is Head Start. And in 2014, the state was awarded a four-year, $70 million federal grant to help expand full-day preschool in 17 districts that previously had limited programs or no state-funded pre-K.

Still, it’s not enough, advocates say. Not even in the former Abbott districts.

“Newark and some of the other Abbott districts don’t serve all their eligible children,” Barnett says. “To my knowledge, that’s not legal. You’re not supposed to have a waiting list.”
Especially when so much is at stake, proponents say.

“You know if you’ve raised children and you come from a middle-class background the importance of preschool,” says State Senator Weinberg. “You know the importance of having books around, of having your child read to on a daily basis.”

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