At the Future of America Learning Center in the West Bronx, the pre-K curriculum is built around adult jobs — visiting real workplaces and then learning about the vocabulary and skills that grown-ups use every day.
At a career-month event, 4-year-olds meet doctors and nurses from the Montefiore Medical Center. Back in their classroom, they set up a replica triage desk and play doctor with a real stethoscope and blood-pressure cuff. In another unit, students visit a Citibank vault and then deposit real coins in a classroom bank.
If they are upset, children can choose to visit the "oasis," a corner furnished with soft carpets, pillows and a mini-armchair. The idea is for kids to learn resilience, the self-soothing skills that help people of all ages overcome conflict, disappointment and discomfort. There are three adults in each twenty-student classroom at Future of America, one with a master's degree. And the center is open for eleven hours per day, which means people — a good number of them single parents — can drop their children off on the way to work and pick them up when their shift is over, without worrying about arranging after-school baby-sitting or nutritious meals. All of that is provided at one location.
This is a gold-standard pre-K education — the kind that, according to research by Nobel Prize–winning economist James Heckman, increases children's lifetime earnings and their chances of being employed, and decreases their probability of becoming incarcerated or reliant on public assistance as adults. Heckman has found that high-quality pre-K yields returns of $17 for every $1 in government spending.
And this gold-standard pre-K is expensive. A year at Future of America costs about $19,000 per child, covered by state and city dollars, a sliding scale of tuition payments based on parental income, plus an additional large funding stream unique to Future of America: subsidies from unionized employers like hospitals and nursing homes. This is because Future of America is operated by the Service Employees International Union’s 1199 chapter. Over 80 percent of the students’ parents are union members, working as nurses, surgical technicians, kitchen staff and janitors.
Few New York City children — or American children — have access to an affordable, full-day, high-quality pre-K program like this one. Though parents in affluent New York neighborhoods shell out up to $40,000 per year to pay for private preschool, 41 percent of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds — and almost half in the Bronx — are not enrolled in any early childhood education at all. And despite the fact that a 1997 state law guarantees pre-K to all New York City 4-year-olds, that program has never met its $500 million funding target, and 75 percent of the students enrolled are in half-day pre-K, which conforms neither to their parents’ work schedule nor to the children’s academic, social and emotional needs.
In New York City, applicants for the free pre-K programs housed in public schools — which account for just over one-third of the city's pre-K slots; the rest are in community-based organizations — exceed the number of seats by a ratio of 3.5 to 1 in the Bronx, 4 to 1 in Brooklyn and Staten Island, and 5 to 1 in Manhattan and Queens.
Bill de Blasio, New York City's mayor-elect, ran for office on the platform of changing all this. His signature policy proposal is to fund a full day of free pre-K for every 4-year-old in the city by raising the tax on personal income over $500,000 from 3.86 to 4.41 percent. This would mean turning some 40,000 half-day slots into full-day slots and creating an additional 10,000 pre-K seats in existing or new programs, managed either by the Department of Education or private organizations like the SEIU, the Children's Aid Society or the city's many neighborhood-based settlement houses.
This bold attempt at redistribution from the city's economic elite to poor, working- and middle-class families has captured the public's imagination. A November 2013 poll from Quinnipiac found that 68 percent of city voters and 63 percent of voters statewide support the idea. Politically, the enthusiasm outside the city is crucial, since Mayor de Blasio will need the state legislature's permission to raise personal income taxes on the city's highest earners.
Just a few months ago, that seemed an impossible ask; even Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo voiced reluctance on raising taxes and named a tax-relief commission to offer recommendations on lowering them. Much of the business community, meanwhile, reacted to de Blasio’s candidacy with a collective shudder.
But recently, the outlook for de Blasio's pre-K plan began to look brighter. State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-leader Jeff Klein announced their support for the income tax hike. Though Cuomo won't commit to a specific funding mechanism, he has said he stands firm with the mayor-elect on the underlying goal of expanding access to full-day pre-K. And the governor's tax commission has mostly steered clear of recommendations on personal income taxes.
Early childhood advocates point out that Albany has cooperated in the past with New York City mayors who wanted to raise taxes to finance special projects, as the legislature agreed to do for Mayor Dinkins to fund the "Safe Streets, Safe City" initiative in the 1990s, and for Mayor Bloomberg after 9/11 and again in the depths of the recession in 2009. Progressives who endorsed de Blasio's rival for the Democratic nomination, Bill Thompson, have been rolling back their earlier criticism of the mayor-elect's income tax plan as unrealistic.
"Sometimes you're wrong, as I was during the campaign, when I suggested that Bill de Blasio couldn't gain support in Albany for his early childhood education initiatives," said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten in an early-December statement.
The business community has sensed the swelling support for universal pre-K and is staying mostly quiet. Yet that doesn't mean business-oriented donors and groups, like the Partnership for New York City, won't lobby behind the scenes in Albany, hand in hand with centrist and conservative legislators, to water down de Blasio's plan or come up with a funding source other than higher income taxes on the wealthy.
Complicating the picture is that Wall Street and education advocates are tracking de Blasio's fraught tango with the charter school sector, a philanthropic darling. During the campaign, de Blasio pledged to charge deep-pocketed charter networks rent for the space they use inside public school buildings, an unpopular idea with school choice reformers that has led many of them — even those supportive of pre-K — to view de Blasio with suspicion.
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."