Plans to expand public preschool in New Jersey have stalled since the recession and remain limited to the most economically struggling school districts.

President Barack Obama’s new proposal to invest $75 billion during the next decade to jumpstart preschool for low-income students nationwide has energized both the preschool movement and its opponents, who question its effectiveness.

Expansion will not be easy, or inexpensive. The Economist, in a June 2012 report, ranked the United States 24th of 45 countries in the availability, affordability and quality of preschool.

Next year, New Jersey will spend almost $650 million for preschool in the state’s most disadvantaged districts, according to Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed 2013-14 budget. About $570 million of those funds will go to the 31 urban districts, including Pleasantville, Vineland, Millville and Bridgeton, which offer full-day programs for all 3- and 4-year-olds as part of the state Surpeme Court’s Abbott vs. Burke decision.

The rest of the money goes to 96 smaller, low-income districts that offer a range of half-day and full-day programs, primarily targeting 4-year-olds and often limited in class size.

A state Department of Education spokeswoman said the agency is still reviewing the president’s plan and would have no further comment on the proposal at this time.

Somers Point curriculum director Jennifer Luff said her district has a waiting list for its program, which runs from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“We wanted to do a full day, but we never got the money,” she said. “But the kindergarten teachers absolutely see a difference between those who came to preschool and those who didn’t.”

Statewide, about 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 18 percent of 3-year-olds, or about 51,200 children, attended a publicly funded preschool in 2011, according to the most recent State of Preschool report issued annually by the National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, at Rutgers University.

In school districts funded for full-day programs, the average cost per student was $12,730.

The cost represents the high standards expected of state programs, which limit class size to between 15 and 18 students and require a certified teacher and aide in each class.

The state DOE also has been working to integrate preschool into elementary grade curricula to prevent a chronic problem known as “fade-out,” in which students seem to lose the preschool advantages by third or fourth grade.

While research on effectiveness has been limited, NIEER Executive Director W. Steven Barnett said the institute hopes the new NJSMART data system will make it possible to track much larger groups of children, which has proved difficult because of the high mobility rate of students in urban schools.

NIEER has been tracking a group of students in the 15 largest urban Abbott school districts since 2004-05. It recently did a follow-up on a group of 754 children now in fifth grade that showed the students who had attended preschool out-performed those who did not on state tests.

The report found the achievement advantage of attending an Abbott preschool for two years equaled about three-quarters of a year’s growth in math and two-thirds of a year’s growth in language arts. But even those students were often still performing below the state average.

Barnett said preschool is not a panacea for all of the problems low-income children face. He said it must be combined with a comprehensive K-12 program to reduce fade-out. But, he said, a quality preschool program can reduce the need for remediation later, saving money in the long run.

That’s true in Woodbine, where Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said school officials are revising curriculum on an annual basis, because the students are learning more each year. During the past four years, students have shown a marked improvement in language arts on state tests, though they are still struggling in math.

“We are adding more rigor,” Anderson-Towns said. “If the children are not challenged, they will lag again. And there has been much less need for remediation.”

While 4-year-olds learned about the letter K and the power of wind in the district’s preschool class last week, the kindergarten students across the hall wrote simple sentences about plants and gardens.

“Kindergarten is more rigorous today,” teacher Karen Rinck said. “It is still learning through play, but now we are also transitioning to prepare for first grade.”

Both the preschool and kindergarten classes have learning stations with activities, but the preschool room is physically play-oriented with a small sandbox and kitchen area. The room also has some tablet computers and a large electronic smartboard on which Amari Holton, 4, practiced writing giant letter K’s in a row. He showed off by writing his name for visitors.

Over in the science station, students used straws to blow at boats in a tub of water, reinforcing the lesson and story on wind.

The small, rural district has 45 students in three preschool classes, one for 3-year-olds, one for 4-year-olds and one a mixed-age group that recognizes that children develop at different rates. Each class also has one student with a disability.

Groups such as Advocates for Children of New Jersey are pushing for the expansion. The group published a report in January of a survey of 46 districts in which about half said they have a waiting list.

Opposing groups, most vocally The Heritage Foundation, say too many large-scale preschool programs, including Head Start, have not proved effective and the government should focus instead on programs that strengthen low-income families and parenting skills.

Adding to the complexity, almost 25 percent of New Jersey’s public schools, including Linwood and Egg Harbor Township, still do not offer full-day kindergarten. A bill was introduced in the state Legislature in May 2012 to make kindergarten mandatory, but the cost has not been addressed.

Barnett said if the federal money comes through, New Jersey could ramp up fairly quickly by implementing the 2008 expansion plans that have been shelved since the recession.

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