Abbott vs. SFRA

The Asbury Park Press has a well-reasoned editorial today on why Corzine should reverse his preschool plans right now. This past Spring Corzine announced to great fanfare that the DOE would roll out mandates requiring school districts to provide full-day preschool to all low-income 3 and 4 year old children. This plan, in its original conception, had the State providing about $12,000 per child per year. As it has become clearer that the State won’t have the cash, many districts put their spreadsheets and job descriptions in the circular file, assuming that this was a plan to nowhere. Apparently some districts have more faith, like Marlboro Public Schools, which is still, according to the article,

considering plans to expand one of the schools in its K-8 district to accommodate the 19 preschool pupils it would be required to educate under a state mandate starting in the fall.

Why would Corzine be reluctant to state the obvious: that his plan to provide free preschool to all economically-disadvantaged children is DOA?

Because this plan is tied (in)directly to the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), now in court being challenged by the Education Law Center, primary advocates for the Abbott districts.

Abbott districts provide free full-day preschools to all children because there’s lots of research showing that early childhood education helps close the achievement gap. Corzine’s main argument for SFRA is that there are many children who live outside of Abbott districts and don’t have access to services like full-day preschool. The SFRA is intended to provide extra money to all poor kids, regardless of address, and the preschool initiative is of the same cloth: poor kids get free preschool regardless of whether they happen to reside in an Abbott district.

If (when) Corzine announces that the preschool initiative is dead, as the editorial suggests he do immediately, he will be conceding that an alternative formula for equity other than Abbott has failed. This doesn’t mean that SFRA is kaput, but it will undermine the big-picture argument that the State has a viable plan for fairly balancing educational funding.

It’s too bad, really. The Abbott decisions are anachronistic — if all our poor kids once huddled in cities, they no longer do — and the SFRA has some merit, its main failing being its reliance on the DOE to provide implementation when it has proved over and over that it’s not up to the task.

On the other hand, preschoolers in Abbott districts will continue to receive services that their counterparts in poor-yet-non-Abbott districts don’t get. Perhaps this will mollify their advocates to some extent as they continue to argue in court this week that poor children in Abbott districts deserve services that equally poor children don’t.

What do you think?

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