Court Orders N.J. Preschool Program

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New Jersey's expansive preschool program for needy children, which is the result of a school finance lawsuit, is changing the state's education landscape and may be a harbinger of things to come in other states where school aid is being litigated.

As part of the 3-decade-old Abbott v. Burke suit, the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1998 ordered the state to provide universal preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds in 30 mostly urban districts. The remedy was designed to help ensure that disadvantaged children are exposed to the same kinds of high-quality learning experiences in school as their peers from more affluent communities. Nearly 29,000 youngsters in those communities were expected to enroll this school year in the preschool programs, which are available up to 10 hours a day for 240 days a year. As many as 60,000 children could qualify for the program, however.

Another 24,000 children in those districts have been placed in all-day kindergarten since 1999 as part of the court mandate.

The Garden State also ordered 100 additional districts in high-poverty areas to offer half-day preschool for 4-year-olds, beginning last fall. New Jersey has 603 school districts.

"This is such an incredible opportunity for our children," says Cynthia Rice, a senior policy analyst with the Association for Children of New Jersey. "When I go to conferences," Rice adds, "people from across the nation are in awe over what we are doing for our children."

New Jersey's Abbott preschool program also has what may be the most rigorous standards of any state-sponsored preschool program in the country. For example, Abbott classrooms are capped at 15 pupils and must be led by teachers who have earned the new preschool- 3rd grade certification. Each class must have an adult aide as well. New Jersey is also drafting curricula that link preschool coursework to the state's K-12 core-learning standards.

Moreover, the state is supposed to pay for facilities, including temporary classrooms, to accommodate the new student load.

Providing preschool programs in the Abbott districts, as well as the all-day kindergarten, will run an estimated $355 million this fiscal year.

Legal Squabbles Persist

But the program continues to be mired in legal wrangling.

In 2000, the supreme court ordered the state to hold private child-care centers to the same high academic standards that were laid out for the 30 public school districts when those high-poverty districts contract with the centers for preschool services. The state had planned to allow a slower phase-in of those standards.

The plaintiffs and the state were again in court last September. David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark, which represents the Abbott plaintiffs, charged that the state had failed to provide facilities in a timely manner, thus limiting the number of pupils that districts could accommodate.

The plaintiffs also want federally financed Head Start programs to receive Abbott money in order to enhance the programs' services and meet the court's preschool standards.

In October, the court issued a preliminary decision that imposed strict deadlines for the state to review and approve Abbott preschool plans. The court, however, rejected the plaintiffs’ request that a special master monitor preschool compliance. Several other issues, including a decision on Head Start funding, were expected to be decided by late last year.

State officials contend that money for the program has been adequate, and that some districts have done a better job of planning for influxes of children than others.

Former Gov. Donald T. DiFrancesco, a Republican, successfully championed the passage of a $5 million incentive program last year to attract 400 new Abbott preschool teachers. They were offered signing bonuses of up to $6,000, along with laptop computers and forgiveness of their student loans.

The preschool process “has not been perfect,” acknowledges Margretta Fairweather, the assistant state education commissioner for early-childhood education. “If I had a magic wand, all the facilities would have been available one year before the requirements.”

But she suggests that the big picture is impressive: "This is like nothing else in the world. ... I don't think anyone else has moved this fast to do this much."

Vol. 21, Issue 17, Page 46

Published in Print: January 10, 2002, as Court Orders N.J. Preschool Program
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