Universal Pre-K?“Education,” wrote the poet William Butler Yeats, “is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire.” One hundred years later, most NJ parents would assert that this fire for learning is best kindled through high-quality preschool programs for their 3- and 4-year-olds. Our commitment to early education fuels a robust industry of private preschools, but low-income families often rely on NJ’s widely-lauded public pre-k programs, and there’s been much attention focused on the need to expand these opportunities. Until we get costs under control, many will arrive in kindergarten with an unkindled flame.

Universal preschool has become a rallying point for politicians, educators, and activists, who readily recite its benefits, especially for poor children who sometimes begin kindergarten with only a limited exposure to literacy and numeracy. 

“Babysitting” vs. Early Learning

Gov. Christie, in his pre-Bridgegate days, said, “Preschool is government-funded babysitting.” Compare that with President Obama’s remark during his 2013 State of the Union address: “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program…I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.”

New Jersey is well ahead of the president. Beginning in the 1980s, a series of NJ State Supreme Court Abbott decisions ordered funding for 31 low-income districts without the tax base to provide the education available in higher-income districts. NJ was mandated to provide free full-day preschool to 3- and 4-year-olds in Abbott districts. How good are our Abbott preschools? A recent report, entitled The APPLES Blossom: Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study, conducted by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers, followed 754 children in 15 low-income districts, including Newark, Camden, and New Brunswick. The data shows a sharp correlation between attendance in Abbott preschools and improved academic performance once those shiny apples hit primary school. 

These are not nurseries limited to circle time. Kids in Abbott districts attend preschool for six hours a day/180 days with a certified teacher and an aide, provided by an assortment of private preschools, church preschools, federal programs like Head Start, and in-district programs. Before and aftercare is offered, plus summer programming. In all, children can attend for up to 10 hours a day, 245 days a year. 

The “Cost” Catch

So, all of America can turn to us as the model for early childhood education, right? Not so fast. Among all states that offer publicly-funded preschool, each child costs on average about $4,323 a year. However, in New Jersey, that per-pupil cost is between $13,000–14,000. While Gov. Christie’s 2014 budget proposal of $646 million for state preschool aid might seem generous, it’s not enough to cover necessary expansions needed. According to Education Law Center, an additional 39,341 children meet eligibility criteria but have nowhere to go. In fact, while the NIERR study ranks NJ first on cost, it ranks us only 16th for access.

Questions remain: Is cost irrelevant? Is it possible to create the same results evinced by the APPLE study at a lower cost to provide for more kids? What’s the academic impact of not providing before and aftercare?  Would that discourage parents from enrolling their kids? If so, how many? Is our mixed-delivery system the best way to go? Could our county education offices or special services units provide more efficient programming for all resident 3- and 4-year-olds? Is there a way to regionalize service delivery? Why is our cut-off 300 percent of the poverty level, while President Obama suggests 200 percent? What if 3-year-olds went for a half-day and 4-year-olds a full day?

We have great preschools, but too many low-income children are left out in the cold.  Our costs are unsustainable, especially if we want to expand access. It’s time to channel our collective energy and imagination towards crafting a system that will ignite that fire for all children.

Laura Waters is an NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.

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