School choice is working for New Jersey’s preschools

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

Two weeks ago the Christie Administration announced that the State was taking over the Camden City Public Schools District. Some view this additional measure of state control (Camden has had a state-appointed Fiscal Monitor for several years) as a boon to a city wracked by educational woes. But a vocal constituency contends that this loss of local control will lead to a surge of charter schools and other forms of school choice that will ultimately hurt traditional district schools. This disapprobation was on full display Monday evening at a Roundtable hosted by NJ Spotlight where, for example, a disgruntled audience member shouted at a Newark charter school leader, “You’re an outsider! You’re a disgrace!”

Sometimes timing is everything. About two weeks ago the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers released a report called “The Abbott Preschool Program Longitudinal Effects Study (APPLES).” Contrary to other national research, which has shown a somewhat modest impact of preschool on a student’s economic and academic prospects, this study extolled N.J.’s exemplary preschool program, which serves 41,000 kids who live in our poorest cities.

The Abbott preschools operate through a mixed-delivery system. In other words, a group of private and public providers offer parents a menu of choices, much like the newly-envisioned Camden school district will offer both traditional public and autonomous charter school placements. (And maybe even vouchers, if George Norcross has his way.) If mixed-delivery works for preschool, why can’t it work for elementary and high school-aged kids? How can someone hate charter schools but love N.J.’s preschools?

It happens. Case in point: the unhappy audience at Rutgers on Monday evening was well aware of the long list of symptoms of a broken Camden school system: a 49% high school graduation rate, terrible test scores, lack of leadership, excessive student and teacher absenteeism, a dysfunctional school board, a dearth of basic educational resources. All this for $24K per student per year. Yet, at least for the louder portion of the audience, the prospect of school choice was met with disdain.

School choice works for preschools

Now let’s look at the way Camden’s public preschools operate, as described in the APPLES study and also a 2010 NJ Early Childhood Education Advisory Council report. Two thousand seven hundred and sixteen three and four-year-olds attend publicly-funded preschools in Camden City, as mandated by the State Supreme Court through the Abbott rulings. Like preschools in N.J.’s 30 other Abbott districts, programs run six hours a day, 180 days per year, with additional before-and-after school care and summer programs.

When a Camden child is three years old, his or her parents simply fill out a registration form, according to the district website, “at any of the district’s private providers or any of the Camden City Public Family or Elementary Schools.” Included in this menu of school choice are 12 private providers:

Black People’s Unity Movement West, Broadway Family Center, Camden Day Nursery, El Centro Day Care Center, Hispanic Day Care, Mi Casita, Respond, Inc., Rowan University Childcare, Rutgers Early Childhood Program, St. Joseph’s Child Development Center, and Labar Ward Center for Children.

There are also four Head Start sites. And, of course, parents can register their children in one of the many in-district preschool classrooms.

Typically, the district pays the preschool. You could call it a voucher, but Education Law Center, primary advocates for Abbott students, takes great umbrage at that suggestion. So let’s just call it school choice.

In other words, parents get to choose the placement of the child. It doesn’t matter if the school is privately or publicly operated. That’s just semantics. This is school. Among those 2,716 Camden children, about 1,000 attend preschool within traditional schools and another 900 are with private providers. Another 400 attend Head Start programs, which are federally funded.

Across N.J., according to the APPLES report, private preschools and Head Start agencies serve about two-thirds of eligible kids, with the remaining third attending in-district programs.

It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for. According to Camden City Public Schools’ 2012-2013 budget, the cost for providing preschool to those children was $31,078,618, about 10 percent of the district’s annual $313,875,430 budget, or about $12,000 per preschooler per year. That’s right in line with the APPLES study, and a bargain in light of the accrued educational benefits.

N.J.’s preschool program, lauded by educators, researchers, and parents, offers the same sort of model proposed for a transformed Camden school district: a mixed-delivery system offering a variety of placements. Can we get past the semantics and try a validated strategy of school choice for the kids stuck in Camden?


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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