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In terms of cost, New Jersey’s Abbott scholarship program was relatively small — a less than $2.5-million drop in the roughly $1 billion sea of cuts to K-12 and higher education enacted this year by the Christie administration.

But education advocates say the initiative — offering scholarships to employees of preschools in New Jersey’s poorest districts — had tremendous impact.

In the past decade, the program helped more than 24,000 New Jersey teachers and their assistants go back to college or graduate school, according to state officials. And along the way, its advocates say, the scholarships became an important ladder for women to lift themselves from poverty.

Now the last of the funding under the state’s early childhood scholarship program is set to expire, and advocates worry it could erode the quality of education for the state’s youngest students.

“Those scholarship funds were wonderful,” said Ave Latte, a professor of early education at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft. “There are many of my students that wouldn’t be able to come to school without the support, and it really makes a difference with the children they teach.”

State officials said New Jersey could no longer afford the $2.47 million program. It was among many victims in this year’s state budget, which cut deeply into property tax rebates, school aid and other areas.

The program was launched in 1999, in response to a landmark state Supreme Court decision forcing the state to spend more money on schools in low-income communities. Among its mandates, the Abbott vs. Burke ruling required all preschool teachers to have a bachelor’s degree with an early childhood certification.

At the time of the ruling, the state required public preschool teachers to have bachelor’s degrees. But that requirement did not apply to private preschools — where more than half of students were served — and just 35 percent of preschool teachers were college graduates.

To help comply with the court ruling, lawmakers allocated $4 million a year to fund scholarships for preschool teachers and teaching assistants in low-income districts. They were eligible for up to $5,000 a year in tuition, plus expenses for books and fees. Scholarship recipients were required to maintain a B average.

Enrollment peaked between 2000 and 2002, when the program awarded more than 4,000 scholarships, state officials said. By 2004, the number of private preschool teachers with bachelor’s degrees rose to 80 percent. Aside from raising preschool standards, advocates say the program also put higher education within reach of struggling teaching assistants, who typically earn less than $30,000 a year.

Among those women was Phyllis Gibbs, who works at Providence preschool in Newark. Before learning about the scholarships, she assumed she could not afford college.

“I wasn’t thinking about going to school,” said Gibbs, a 43-year-old mother of three.

Gibbs was motivated, however, by financial aid and the prospect of earning a promotion with higher pay. All teachers and teaching assistants who worked in Abbott programs were eligible for the scholarship.

There were so many teachers and assistants in her organization who joined the program that the College of Saint Elizabeth and Bloomfield College offered classes on site at the preschool. Gibbs says studying with her colleagues helped keep her going when the work was hard.

Now Gibbs has completed an associate degree, is two years away from earning a bachelor’s at Montclair State and plans to go on for a master’s. “I started and I don’t want to stop, because once I stop, I won’t be able to finish,” she said.

Preschool directors and early education researchers say her story is common. Most teachers and assistants who received scholarships were minority women in their thirties with at least two children, said Sharon Ryan, a researcher at Rutgers University who studied the program.

Some research has shown that better outcomes for children are linked to teachers with higher education degrees. In particular, bachelor’s degrees may help: A 2007 analysis sponsored by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) found that teachers with bachelor’s degrees were correlated with improved outcomes. But although the difference is significant, it is not large, and the authors of the study note that the cost of hiring bachelor’s level teachers can be high.

Other research has found that a bachelor’s degree may not matter very much, says Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia. But training specifically in early childhood does make a difference, he added. Under the Abbott decision, teachers were required to get a certificate in early childhood – training the scholarship also covered. Pianta says that higher education for preschool teachers in the state was also revamped “to actually make the degree meaningful and effective.”

Twenty-six other states also require bachelor’s degrees in their state-run preschool programs, and 14 require assistants to have a CDA.

The difference between teachers who have higher education degrees and early childhood expertise and those without either can be stark, said W. Steven Barnett, co-director of NIEER.

For example, a teacher without the training might try to help a child who is reversing the letter ‘b’ by making them write the letter over and over, he said. A teacher with college credentials is more likely to understand why they’re making the mistake:

“When you’re three or four years old, until you start dealing with words and letters, everything you’ve dealt with, like your tippy cup, you can put it upside down, on its left side or right side. It’s still a tippy cup,” Barnett said. “A teacher who understands that’s why children make the mistake can teach a child much quicker than one that thinks they just need to repeat it.”

In 2005, lawmakers cut funding for New Jersey’s early childhood scholarship program to $2.47 million, from $4 million. Since then, the number of scholarships has waned, down to 1,300 in 2009.

That same year, the state Supreme Court revisited the Abbott decision to permit a new school aid formula. Shonda Laurel, the acting supervisor of child care for the Division of Children and Family Services, says the cut was not necessarily a budget decision, but a response to the ruling.

“There was no longer a need for the program,” Laurel said.

But at the Newark Preschool Council, the director, Jacqueline Crawford, worries about maintaining a highly-trained teaching force as her staff turns over in the future.

“You won’t see the concentration, but it doesn’t take away the need,” said Crawford of teachers who would have been eligible for the scholarships. “There is constant turnover, and we still have teaching assistants who will not be able to afford” more training, she added.

Students needed to reapply for the scholarships every semester, so no one was abruptly cut off and left with tuition expenses they didn’t expect, authorities said. Next semester, Gibbs said, she plans to apply for other financial aid — possibly a federal Pell grant — to cover her tuition.

Ryan, the Rutgers researcher, said ending the scholarships will eliminate an effective work force development program for some of New Jersey’s poorest residents.

“We know nationally we need a more and more qualified work force,” Ryan said. “It’s a bit of a worry.”

A version of this story appeared in The (Newark) Star-Ledger on November 21, 2010.

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