Preschool is great if states can afford it

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

For early childhood education advocates, last week was Christmas in February when President Obama, in his fifth State of the Union address, proposed access to high-quality preschool for every child in America. From the transcript:

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program…I propose to make working with states to make high quality preschool available to every child in America.”

Who can argue with the benefits of preschool, especially for poor children who sometimes begin kindergarten with only a limited exposure to literacy and numeracy? Documented advantages include improved school performance, better employment prospects, stronger families, fewer incarcerations. (For counterpoint, see the oft-touted national study of Head Start that suggests that the impact of preschool doesn’t last past 1st grade. Poor quality preschools yield poor results.)

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Pres. Obama’s Administration has since released more details about his proposal. All 50 states would share costs, along with hefty federal contributions, to provide free preschool to 4-year olds from families that have incomes at or below 200% of the poverty level. Various incentives would prod states to provide preschool to middle-class families on a sliding scale.

New Jersey can strut proudly on this one: in the preschool department, we’re well ahead of the President’s agenda. The long series of State Supreme Court Abbott decisions, which continue to govern many of the state’s school funding allocations, mandates that NJ provides free preschool to about 51,000 children in our 31 Abbott districts. The cut-off for eligibility is family income at or below 300% of the poverty level. (NJ’s new funding formula has technically increased eligibility to poor children not residing in Abbott districts, but the State has never come through with the money.)

A recent report, sweetly entitled “The APPLES Blossom: Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study,” shows a sharp correlation between attendance in Abbott preschools and improved academic performance once those apples hit primary school.

For example, “Results reveal that children who attended the high-quality Abbott pre-K continue to outperform their peers and that there are still advantages for those who had two years of preschool compared to just one… In language, literacy and mathematics, effects through second grade were all about 0.20 (enough to move a child from the 50th percentile to the 57th percentile, moving a child up past 7 percent of the population) for one year of Abbott pre- K. For language and math, the effects of two years of state-funded pre-K were about 0.40 (enough to move a child from the 50th to the 67th percentile).”

Those results speak to the rigor of the program. Young kids in Abbott districts attend preschool for six hours a day for 180 days with a certified teacher and an aide. Before and afterschool care is offered, plus summer programming. In all, children can attend for up to 10 hours a day, 245 days a year. NJ’s preschool program is a mixed-delivery program, i.e., services are provided by an assortment of private preschools, church preschools, federal programs like Head Start, and in-district programs.

So we’ve got it right, yes? All of America can turn to us as the model for early childhood education.One snag: the price. The mother of all preschool assessments, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIERR), publishes an annual state-by-state analysis of public preschool programs. In 2011 New Jersey’s budget line for preschools was $597,510,227. That’s an annual per pupil cost of $11,669.

By way of context, our costs per pupil place us not first among the states assessed, but about 25% higher than the second highest state program. Here’s the top five: NJ (at $11,669), Connecticut at $9,356, Oregon at $8,454, Minnesota at $7,475, and Alaska at $6,855. More locally, New York spends $3,685 (the 24th highest) and Pennsylvania spends $5,193.

Why all the carping on the dollars? Because we can’t afford to expand some of our great programming to equally poor kids who don’t happen to reside in Abbott districts. (While NIERR ranks us first on cost, we’re ranked 16th for access for four-year-olds because there’s not enough slots for eligible kids.)

So, here are some questions worth asking. Is cost irrelevant? Or is it possible to create the same results shown in the APPLE study at a lower cost in order to provide services to more kids? For example, what’s the academic impact of not providing before and after school care? Is our mixed-delivery system the best way to go, with each and every district responsible for its own programming? Could our county schools 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% of the poverty level, while Pres. Obama suggests 200%? What if three year olds went for a half-day and four year olds went for a full day?

We have great preschools. All things considered, our costs are unsustainable, especially if we want to expand access. What’s the next step?


Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJLeftbehind.

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