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In New Jersey, courts played role in expanding early ed. access
State House News Service, Story by Colleen Quinn, March 20, 2013

STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, MARCH 20, 2013….More than a decade after revamping their early education system, New Jersey school districts have seen the achievement gap among students in the poorest communities shrink and money spent on special education dip, experts involved in overhauling the Garden State’s pre-school programs told Massachusetts lawmakers Wednesday.

At a briefing, state lawmakers hoping to boost funding for early education heard what it took to provide pre-school to more than 45,000 three-and four-year olds in 31 of the poorest school districts around New Jersey, and the lessons learned along the way.

Lawmakers around the country need to start thinking about pre-school as a constitutionally required component of education, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

Gov. Deval Patrick and some lawmakers want to bump early education funding in Massachusetts by $98 million as part of a sweeping tax and spending plan the governor unveiled in his fiscal year 2014 budget. The governor proposes raising the income tax to 6.25 percent and lowering the sales tax to 4.5 percent, along with a host of other tax law changes that, taken together, would raise $1.9 billion in new revenue.

The governor’s early education plan earmarks $56 million to eliminate a waiting list of 30,000 students unable to get into subsidized pre-school programs, and another $30 million geared toward workforce development for teachers to enhance the quality of early education.

With a transportation funding crisis attracting more attention, convincing lawmakers to also ask taxpayers to pony up for education could be a tough sell, according to one lawmaker advocating for the plan.

Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley), co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education, said the state already does many of the things implemented in New Jersey, but the “order of magnitude is not yet where it needs to be in Massachusetts.”

Making sure transportation does not overshadow education “will certainly be a challenge,” Peisch said.

“There has been conversation. It just hasn’t been going on as long. And I think it takes people a while to appreciate, understand, given all the other demands on legislators’ time and the funding. There is discussion going on,” she said.

In 2004, the Legislature passed a law creating the Early Education and Care Department, and statutorily locking the state into a policy "to assure every child a fair and full opportunity to reach his full potential by providing and encouraging" early education.

New funding trickled in after the law passed, with the Legislature appropriating $7.1 million in fiscal year 2008, up from $4.6 million in fiscal year 2007. But the funding tap was shut off at the start of the recession, leaving the universal pre-school goal unrealized.

Since 2009, state and federal funds for early education have been cut by $80 million, according to early education advocates. With a limited capacity for new spending and other costly initiatives on the horizon, supporters fear universal pre-k is still years away.

New Jersey moved toward near universal pre-school through three state Supreme Court decisions, starting in 1998. The court forced the state to fully fund pre-school in cities and towns with the highest poverty levels in order to increase access, although the court ruled pre-school is not compulsory. Any parent in the highest poverty communities who wants their child to attend has to be afforded the opportunity, regardless of income level. More affluent communities provide pre-school to children who meet lower-income requirements. The programs cost New Jersey $650 million annually, according to Sciarra.

“What we needed to do was build high quality early education to get kids ready for kindergarten and ultimately close the achievement gap,” Sciarra said.

In its decision, the New Jersey court said the achievement gap could never truly be closed without increasing access to pre-school for poor children, starting at age 3, Sciarra said. The New Jersey Legislature reworked its statewide funding formula and brought pre-school programs into the formula.

Rep. Marjorie Decker (D-Cambridge) called the way New Jersey changed the pre-school landscape “inspiring” but pointed out that having the court involved to force the issue was critical.

Without the court ordered mandate, it never would have happened in New Jersey as quickly as it did, said Cynthia Rice, senior policy analyst at Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

“We would still be talking about it,” she said. “Would we have 45,000 poor kids in pre-school? No.”

“It means significant change with significant investment,” she added. “If we want to make sure every child is reading on grade level at 3rd grade we have to invest upfront.”

In Massachusetts, nearly 40 percent of third graders do not read at grade level, according to Strategies for Children and Early Education for All, the organizations that hosted the New Jersey education experts.

One of the New Jersey court decisions forced the Department of Education, private pre-school providers and Head Start programs to all work together to create unified, integrated programs aligning curriculums.

“We had private providers, Head Start and school districts that didn’t really know much about each other being put together to implement this in 15 months,” Rice said.

Head Start programs attended by lower-income children differed too much quality-wise from private programs and those run by school districts, leaving poor children at a disadvantage, Sciarra said. To those who argue Head Start is not worth the money invested in it, Sciarra said it is because the federal government has never funded it enough to make it a success.

“Head Start quality isn’t what it needs to be,” he said.

A 2005-2006 study that looked at children who entered kindergarten after attending pre-school under the new system found in later years they held on to their educational gains, performing better in language arts, literacy, and then math and science in the upper grades, according to Rice.

“Access to high-quality pre-school can really make or break the long-term educational achievement of children,” Rice said.

The studies from New Jersey will help further the push to increase funding in Massachusetts, Peisch said.

“One of the big questions that I have been hearing, with respect to the push, has been ‘But does it really make a difference?’ There had been some concern,” she said.

“Anyone who has really looked at education has understood that while K-12 needed attention, that early education was something that would have to be addressed,” Peisch added.




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