Time to Make High Quality Early Education a Legal Right

For the second straight year, many states have reduced preschool funding, access and quality for the nation's 3-and 4-year-old children, according to data in the "2011 State of Preschool Yearbook," released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Even more states continue to deprive millions of young children of access to the reform that educators agree is essential to closing K-12 achievement gaps for low-income children and children of color: a well planned, high quality preschool program starting at age 3.

The disturbing trends documented in the 2011 Yearbook reflect the stark reality that lawmakers in many state capitals continue to resist making the investments necessary to build comprehensive systems of universal high quality early education, integrated with K-12 public education. More troubling is the evidence that, when faced with dips in the economy, state lawmakers will not hesitate to cut funding for pre-K, despite research demonstrating the gains made by children who have access to quality early education.

A few states are bucking the trend, thanks to court rulings that have prodded governors and legislators to make and sustain investments in quality preschool. Most notable is New Jersey, where the NJ Supreme Court over a decade ago in the landmark Abbott case directed the State to provide "well planned, high quality" preschool to all 3- and 4-year old children in poor communities. Over 45,000 children are now enrolled in Head Start, child care provider and public school classrooms, funded through the State K-12 school finance formula, staffed by certified teachers delivering a developmentally appropriate educational program. The NJ pre-K curriculum is aligned to the state's rigorous K-12 academic standards. While lawmakers have delayed an expansion of the program statewide, the Abbott rulings have ensured adequate and stable funding, making NJ's "Abbott Preschool Program" a national model.

State court rulings in Arkansas, Alaska and North Carolina have advanced access to preschool in those states as well. In Colorado, a recently concluded trial resulted in a court ruling that recounted the great benefits of high quality preschool and found serious shortcomings in the Colorado program. The court found that the state's program does not provide access to enough children and fail to meet quality standards. This court decision is currently on appeal.

We know low-income children start kindergarten far behind their more affluent peers, and that states cannot narrow, let alone close, achievement gaps unless all young children have access to high quality preschool.

The time is now for states to expand the legal right to education to include quality early education for all 3- and 4-year-old children, as well as full-day kindergarten. It's also time for an entirely new federal policy on early education, focused on encouraging states to build coordinated and comprehensive delivery systems, modeled on New Jersey's Abbott model.

Without a legal guarantee to early education, our most vulnerable children will continue to be deprived of the single most effective education reform, and the United States will continue to struggle to keep up with our global competitors.