From guest blogger Alyssa Morones
In 1998, New Jersey mandated universal early childhood education starting at age three for all children in 31 of the state's urban school districts. A recent report found the effects of this early education to be lasting.
The children followed in the study from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, were beneficiaries of the New Jersey Supreme Court's rulings in Abbott v. Burke, which found the New Jersey's previous school funding law unconstitutional when applied to students in the state's poorer urban districts.
In its ruling, the court directed the Legislature to enact a new law that would assure substantially equivalent funding for urban districts as successful suburban districts and would provide for supplemental programs to address urban students' extreme disadvantages.
The Abbott Preschool Longitudinal Effects Study began tracking 1,000 New Jersey preschool students in 15 of the state's poorest districts in 2005. At the end of the study seven years later, researchers found that the 700 students they could still identify had made significant academic gains.
The study found that for the students in the study, now in 4th and 5th grades, the Abbott preschool programs increased achievement in language arts and literacy, math, and science. The effects were greater for students who attended two years of preschool versus those students who only attended one year. For students enrolled one year, the test score gains equaled approximately 10 percent to 20 percent of the achievement gap between white and minority students over a year of learning. These gains doubled to 20 percent to 40 percent of the achievement gap for those students enrolled in two years of preschool.
On average, students who attended preschool in the state's poorest cities were three-quarters of an academic year ahead of their peers who did not. They were also significantly less likely to be held back a grade or receive special education services.
The effects of the Abbott Preschool program were greater on student achievement and school success than other early learning programs across the nation with less funding and weaker standards. New Jersey's preschool program is unique in its rigor. Preschool students attend two years of full-day classes. Certified instructors teach a research-based curriculum and class size is limited to 15.
This year, the mandate serves almost 45,000 students. Former Governor Jon Corzine passed an expansion of the mandate in 2008 to apply the same standards and funding to all districts serving low-income students, but it has since been stalled. Governor Chris Christie proposed to increase preschool funding by an additional $14.4 million next year, which would bring the total number of funds available for the mandate to its largest yet—$648 million.