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Education Law Center Opposes Charter School Pre-School Programs in New Jersey’s Poorest Districts

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Education Law Center is calling for the NJ Department of Education (NJDOE) to immediately end the unauthorized practice of allowing charter schools in poor urban Abbott districts to operate separate preschool programs outside the districts’ universal “Abbott Preschool Program.”

The administration of former Governor Chris Christie allowed 10 charter schools in five Abbott districts to operate their own preschool programs, despite not having a contract from the districts to participate in the districts’ universal program, as required by the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings. In 2019-20, the 10 charter preschool programs enrolled 630 three- and four-year-olds, funded by over $8 million in state preschool aid.

ELC’s December 2019 letter to the NJDOE emphasizes that, under the NJ Supreme Court’s detailed Abbott preschool mandates, only Abbott districts are authorized to offer high quality preschool to all resident three- and four-year-olds through an NJDOE-approved universal enrollment program. While community providers and Head Start are eligible to operate preschool classrooms in Abbott districts, they can only do so under a contract with the districts. The district contract requires strict adherence to teacher quality, class size, and other Abbott preschool standards, as well as enrollment through the district’s universal outreach and recruitment process.

As the Supreme Court has made clear, these requirements are essential elements of the constitutional obligation imposed on Abbott districts to provide high quality preschool to all eligible three- and four-year old children residing in their communities. The districts are mandated to enroll at least 90 percent of the universe of those children. The requirement for community-based providers to operate only under district contracts ensures that only those providers capable of and willing to deliver high quality preschool through district coordination, support and supervision, can participate in the Abbott program.

The NJDOE’s decision to allow the 10 charter schools to operate separate preschool programs not only violates the Abbott rulings and the agency’s own regulations, but also undermines the cornerstone of the nationally-recognized success of the Abbott Preschool Program: a district-supervised, mixed delivery system of early education unifying community-based providers and district classrooms under a common set of high quality standards, backed by adequate funding. This well-established legal and policy framework does not permit any entity, including charter schools, to provide preschool wholly outside of the district-run, universal Abbott program.

“The NJDOE has no authority to permit a charter school to run a parallel preschool program that competes with the district’s Abbott program for students and funding,” said David Sciarra, ELC Executive Director and lead counsel in the Abbott litigation. “Charter schools in Abbott districts cannot operate preschool classrooms unless they enter into a contract with the district, as is required of every community-based provider and Head Start program participating in Abbott preschool.”

In 2019-20, the following charter schools are providing preschool without obtaining the legally required contract to participate in the Abbott district program:

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