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.”

NYC Schools Capital Budget Shifts to Prioritize Preschool Classrooms over Charter School Co-Location

A quick Saturday post…

New York City’s new school chancellor has indicated a significant shift in priorities.  Yesterday as she described the school district’s capital improvement budget, she prioritized making sure there are enough preschool classrooms by taking money from the budget line formerly designated to prepare spaces for locating privately managed charters in public buildings.

The NY Times reports:  “The chancellor, Carmen Fariña, in describing the Education Department’s $12.8 billion capital plan, said she would seek to redirect $210 million that had been reserved for classroom space for charter schools and other nonprofit groups. The money, spread out over five years, would instead be used to create thousands of new prekindergarten seats…”

Mayor de Blasio Defends Preschool and After-School Programs with Determination

New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio made the needs of young children and pre-adolescents the centerpiece of his election campaign last fall.   A promotional website describes a well framed  “plan to raise taxes on the wealthiest New Yorkers to fund universal pre-k for every four year old and after school for every middle school student in New York City.”

In New York approving even local tax requests is a state responsibility. Yesterday de Blasio traveled to Albany to ask members of the General Assembly to pass enabling legislation for the modest New York City income tax he seeks to levy on those earning over $500,000 annually.

Pressure from de Blasio has forced New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to address the need for preschool as well, though the details are a little murky because his plan is also paired with the statewide tax cut he anticipates will help him get reelected next fall.  According to Bloomberg News,  Cuomo says pre-kindergarten for all four-year-olds across the state will cost $2.2 billion; Mayor de Blasio says his plan for pre-kindergarten and after school programs for middle schoolers in New York City alone will cost $2.5 billion.  He has proclaimed he will not back down on a plan that is urgently needed by New York City’s families.

Asking de Blasio to accept his more modest statewide proposal, Cuomo charges de Blasio can’t possibly get a program set up to provide preschool for 54,000 four-year-olds by September.  Cuomo also suggests a more modest start-up and phase-in.  Proclaiming such programs should be a right for all children in New York City, the new mayor is unwilling to carve these programs back by making them available only to poor families who clearly demonstrate the greatest need.  According to the NY Times, the mayor told lawmakers, “The city’s right to self determination ought to be honored in Albany.”

Bloomberg News reports that deBlasio intends to reach all 4-year-olds by using half of almost 4,000 classrooms identified by officials within public school buildings along with sites in community-based organizations.  The mayor predicts an average cost at $10,239 per child, or $340 million annually, including  expansion and operational costs, with almost $100 million for start-up and infrastructure costs.

The mayor’s proposed tax would also provide optional after school programs at school, a library, or a community organization for 205,000 middle school students.  According to the Hechinger Report which is covering this part of de Blasio’s plan, the number of seats available in such programs has been significantly reduced during the lean budget years since 2008.  The mayor promotes this part of his plan by noting the need for good supervision to keep kids out of trouble in the after-school hours and for the kind of enrichment more affluent children take for granted: “After-school programs can help students find something they love to do, whether dance, theater, or sports, providing motivation that extends to the regular academic day.”

Mayor de Blasio says a primary reason he continues to push for a dedicated local funding stream rather than accepting Cuomo’s proposed compromise is to avoid the ups and downs of the state budget and appropriations process.  He emphasizes the need for reliable funding.  After all, New York is one of 34 states that has not restored public school funding to the 2008, pre-recession level.  According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, New York spends 5.1 percent less, in inflation adjusted dollars, on public education than it did in 2008.

The new mayor’s determination to defend his program on its merits has kept the eye of the press on the needs of young children, pre-adolescents and families in New York City.  His plan to put a program in place without a long phase-in demonstrates deBlasio’s determination to address inequality.  Children and families can’t wait and for most there is no way to afford a private program.