In New Jersey, Abbott School Districts Model Unified, Enriched Pre-Kindergarten

This morning the NY Times reports new analysis from economist James Heckman showing that the North Carolina Abecedarian Project, a study developed in the 1970s to mitigate hardship in early childhood, had long term health benefits added to its intellectual benefits for the impoverished children who received fully enriched services.  There is much talk these days of the need for public programs to provide early childhood enrichment in communities where poverty is concentrated, including specific proposals for pre-kindergarten from President Barack Obama and from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.  But in our era of austerity budgeting at the state and federal levels, few places have found the money to launch well-coordinated, quality programming. This means that in most places the children who benefit from early education are those whose parents can afford to pay for it.

One exception is New Jersey, whose Abbott Pre-Kindergarten program was recently profiled by Sharon Lerner for The American Prospect.  Lerner writes:  “… anyone who would like to see what Obama’s vision of universal pre-K might look like would do well to come to Orange, one of 31 (school) districts in the state known as ‘Abbotts.’  Because of a historic lawsuit, for almost a decade virtually all three-and four-year olds in these low-income urban areas have been attending preschool. Already well acquainted with the benefits and unforeseen challenges of expanding pre-K, the Abbotts serve as a window into the future of early education.”

Pre-Kindergarten in New Jersey’s Abbott districts is one of the long term results of a school funding lawsuit, Abbott v. Burke, filed in 1981 and litigated over three decades. “The court wound up devising several remedies, including what amounted to a massive redistribution of education dollars.  Children in these poor districts in New Jersey (31 school districts whose needs were deemed the greatest) would receive not only resources equal to those in richer districts but also additional support to help them contend with the consequences of poverty.  Later, after legislators repeatedly resisted the idea of sharing money across district lines, the court wound up laying out the specific tools that each Abbott district would use to combat poverty, including, in 1998, universal preschool.”

The plan for preschool, which the court demanded the right to review, was approved in 2001.  Classes are capped at 15 students with an aide. Individual programs need to follow one of several approved curricula.  Teachers must have earned a bachelor’s degree and early childhood certification. Preschool teachers are paid at the same rate as public school teachers.

Besides establishing new sites, the Abbott preschool program was designed to incorporate all the early childhood education programs and Head Start programs that already existed in the 31 targeted school districts. David Sciarra, Executive Director of the Education Law Center that litigated Abbott over the decades, concludes: “This is the Abbott lesson. You had all of these existing programs that get federal and state dollars, child-care and Head Start programs already in the community.  It made no sense to ignore that infrastructure and replace it with all new programs.  What happened in Abbott that’s so revolutionary is that it unified child care, Head Start, and public school classrooms in a coordinated system.”

Sciarra comments: “Early education is to me the most surprising and frankly the most gratifying of all the remedies that came out of Abbott.”

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