The U.S. Department of Education has released a new report on the unmet need for high-quality preschool programs. According to the data, nearly 60 percent of preschool-aged children in New Jersey are not enrolled in these types of programs.

Preschool children. (Jupiterimages, ThinkStock)

The report, "A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America," shows that of the approximately  million 4-year-olds in the country, about 60 percent, or 2.5-million, are not enrolled in publicly-funded preschool programs.

According to the report, there are almost 110,000 4-year-olds in New Jersey. Only 28 percent are in some type of preschool program. Another 11 percent are in state or federal preschool programs.

Ceil Zalkind of Advocates for Children of New Jersey says, "we know preschool works." Zalkind says there is years of research documenting the importance of helping child development in the early years.

"There have been studies that show high quality early education reaps great benefits on into adulthood," Zalkind said.

Zalkind believes preschool early education is not just about education in the traditional school sense.

"When people visit preschool, they don't see kids working on worksheets.  It's really that social interaction. How do you act in a classroom? How do you get along with other children? How do you follow direction? Thats a critical part to becoming part of the school system," she said.

She admits New Jersey has a better program than a lot of other states.

"We know that New Jersey has one of the best preschool programs in the country. But it doesn't reach enough kids," she said.

According to Zalkind, New Jersey is one of the states that does serve low-income children as a result of a Supreme Court decision, Abbott vs. Burke. So we serve about 50,000 children  between the ages of 3 and 4 in the 31 lowest-income municipalities in the state.

Both the state and federal governments need to come up with a plan to fund these programs, Zalkind said, because those early years are critically important for development.  She said that since 2008, a law known as the School Funding Reform Act has been on the books. The measure was enacted to provide preschool programs to about 35,000 low-income children in about 90 school districts in New Jersey. However, she said, the law  has never been funded.

"It is a question of having the will to devote the funding toward it," she said.