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.