Will New York City Lead the Way on Pre-K?

De Blasio has mentioned former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz's Success Academy charter network as an organization that can afford to pay rent, prompting Moskowitz to help organize a protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge. Asked about de Blasio’s pre-K plan, Moskowitz steered clear of commenting on the funding mechanism and instead pitched the charter school sector — which is currently unable, according to state law, to provide pre-K — as a potential way to scale up access to early education. "We support the expansion of universal pre-K programs, but believe any policy should allow public charter schools the opportunity to provide these services as well," Moskowitz said. Of course, such a plan would create new nonunionized pre-K teaching jobs and would likely attract opposition from organized labor. 

James Merriman, CEO of the New York City Charter School Center, argues that privately managed, publicly funded charter schools are a natural fit in the world of pre-K, where a mix of government and nonprofit providers already compete for students. "Whatever argument you might have with the charter sector, I don't think you can deny that a large number of them in New York State have provided a high-quality education," Merriman says. "I think it's in the mayor's best interest — his political self-interest — as well as smart policy to make pre-K an issue around which everyone can participate and be for." 

Some progressive Wall Street insiders, like the investment banker and Century Foundation fellow Dan Alpert, aren't fully sold on the idea of income taxes financing early childhood education. "It's kind of hard to argue that the wealthy are undertaxed in the city of New York, where the combined marginal tax rate is around 45 percent when you include federal, state and local," Alpert says. Instead, he points out that expensive luxury homes and apartments in Manhattan are underassessed for property tax purposes relative to comparable residences in wealthy suburbs. "That would be another place to look for revenue support," he says.

There are other potential ways to fund pre-K, though some of the alternatives are more regressive than an income tax. In San Antonio, Mayor Julián Castro expanded pre-K access by championing a November 2012 ballot initiative that raised the sales tax by an eighth of a cent. In Denver, a 2006 ballot initiative supported by then-Mayor John Hickenlooper (now the governor of Colorado) increased sales tax revenue for pre-K tuition credits, and today about 70 percent of Denver 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool. Denver's program is especially promising because children who enrolled demonstrated a 9.3 percent advantage on third-grade reading tests four years later. President Obama has suggested funding state-level pre-K expansions through an increase in the tobacco tax, a plan that is wending its way through Congress, where House Republicans are likely to spike it. 

De Blasio, though, is standing firm on the income tax as his favored strategy for funding pre-K. "I'm convinced this is the best way to get this done," he said at a late-November event at Columbia University. "I think it's a fair way to get it done. I think it's an available way to get it done. I think it's a fast way to get it done." Several weeks later, the de Blasio transition team announced UPKNYC, a public outreach campaign in favor of universal pre-K, headlined by celebrities like John Legend, Cynthia Nixon, and Al Sharpton.

If Albany cooperates on funding — either through the income tax or some other mechanism — there will be at least two major challenges that remain. The first is real estate: there is simply not enough space in existing public school buildings and community organizations to serve tens of thousands of additional kids. Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, suggests that underused public housing stock, especially on the ground floors of apartment complexes, could be one solution. She also suggests using tax revenue to enable the city or nonprofits to rent pre-K space in the new market-rate buildings shooting up in booming neighborhoods like Sunnyside and Long Island City, both in Queens. 

The second challenge will be guaranteeing that the new pre-K seats are high-quality ones. A lot of that has to do with training and supporting the early childhood workforce, which is disproportionately female. 

Bonnie Lou Mallonga, the director of the Future of America Learning Center, pays her head teachers a starting salary of $35,000, compared to a starting salary of more than $51,000 for kindergarten teachers with the same level of education. That income gap persists over the course of a career in early childhood education.

"Pre-K teachers have the same skills and credentials" as K–12 educators, Mallonga says, and the more we learn about the neuroscience of early childhood development, the more complex the job becomes. Yet the best teachers in the city's pre-K system often aspire to move into K–12 schools or even to leave education altogether and become nannies for affluent families, where they can earn twice as much. "That's the reality we’re dealing with," Mallonga says — one that a modest increase in income taxes can’t fully address. "It's sad," she adds. Future of America and other leading pre-K programs in the city are increasingly partnering with local colleges and universities to guarantee a seamless stream of education and training for incoming and working teachers. 

Gail Nayowith, the executive director of SCO Family of Services and a member of de Blasio's pre-K task force, has been observing the debate over child welfare in New York for over twenty years, and she is optimistic that universal free pre-K will soon be as commonplace as universal free kindergarten. "Finally, we have a breakthrough generation of leaders who are positioning this issue politically," she says.

She points out that universal pre-K offers multiple "bottom-line" benefits to New York: childcare that allows low- and middle-income parents to work instead of relying on public assistance; a reduction in  remediation costs for K–12 schools, because children begin kindergarten better prepared academically; and a long-term improvement in the social and educational skills of the New York workforce, as reflected in Heckman’s research. "I'm a true believer," she says. 

What remains to be seen is to what extent the mayor-elect will expend his political capital on the city’s youngest and least powerful residents. Will de Blasio push pre-K in Albany as hard as he has promised to? "He's on the line to give it the old college try," Alpert observes, "because he campaigned so heavily on this issue."

Tags: bill de blasio, education, new york city, pre-k

    • Dana Goldstein
    • Dana Goldstein is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering education, public health, economic mobility, and women’s issues. She is a contributing writer to The Nation and The Daily Beast, and in 2010 was a recipient of the Spencer Fellowship in Education Journalism, a competitive award supporting the long-form work of mid-career e...

    • Dana Goldstein's full bio »