Does NYC’s Pre-K Expansion Deserve a Failing Grade?

Bill de Blasio’s universal-preschool system appears to be favoring families with means.

National Journal
Alia Wong, The Atlantic
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Alia Wong, The Atlantic
Feb. 26, 2015, 11:56 a.m.

Up­dated on Feb­ru­ary 27, 2015

In his cam­paign for may­or in 2013, Bill de Bla­sio com­mit­ted to cre­at­ing a free full-day preschool pro­gram for all of New York City’s 4-year-olds. Back then, few­er than 27 per­cent of that age group had ac­cess to such ser­vices, largely be­cause of the high cost. And the idea was to nar­row the achieve­ment gap by re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers to early edu­ca­tion for fam­il­ies that couldn’t oth­er­wise af­ford it. Like many poli­cy­makers and chil­dren’s ad­voc­ates, in­clud­ing Pres­id­ent Obama, de Bla­sio had con­cluded that uni­ver­sal pre­kinder­garten—a mod­el known in edu­ca­tion circles as UPK—would be key to solv­ing the city’s so­cioeco­nom­ic in­equal­it­ies.

So, upon as­sum­ing of­fice last Janu­ary, de Bla­sio did what he had prom­ised: He planted the seeds of a uni­ver­sal pre-K pro­gram, and by the fall his ad­min­is­tra­tion had cre­ated more than 26,000 new, tu­ition-free seats in full-day preschools for chil­dren across the in­come scale. Le­gis­lat­ors and gov­ernors across the coun­try waxed lyr­ic­al about the city’s ini­ti­at­ive, fram­ing it as a par­agon for oth­er school dis­tricts and states to fol­low. After all, though most states have some form of pub­lic preschool in place, only two—Geor­gia and Ok­lahoma—cur­rently have free, uni­ver­sal pre-K that’s avail­able to kids of all means.

The prob­lem is, New York City’s uni­ver­sal preschool pro­gram isn’t look­ing so uni­ver­sal, ac­cord­ing to new find­ings from the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (Berke­ley) In­sti­tute of Hu­man De­vel­op­ment. In fact, the Berke­ley re­search­ers, who have been fol­low­ing the sys­tem’s pro­gress since its launch, say the preschool-ex­pan­sion ef­fort is tilt­ing sig­ni­fic­antly to­ward middle-class and af­flu­ent fam­il­ies—not the lower-in­come ones, whose kids would, ex­perts con­tend, most be­ne­fit from early-edu­ca­tion op­por­tun­it­ies.

“The de Bla­sio people have been very keen on uni­ver­sal en­ti­tle­ments as a way to al­le­vi­ate costs from middle-class budgets,” said Bruce Fuller, the UC Berke­ley edu­ca­tion and pub­lic-policy pro­fess­or who led the study and has long been skep­tic­al of uni­ver­sal pre-K pro­grams. “It seems like he’s really come to em­phas­ize [that pri­or­ity].”

“De Bla­sio has ex­pan­ded preschool among lower-in­come fam­il­ies but hasn’t in­vited new fam­il­ies in­to the sys­tem. He’s just play­ing mu­sic­al chairs and draw­ing low-in­come kids out of ex­ist­ing preschools.”

What Fuller and his team found is that the newly cre­ated preschool seats are more pre­val­ent in the city’s most af­flu­ent neigh­bor­hoods than they are in the poorest ones. Where­as 41 per­cent of the slots are loc­ated in the most af­flu­ent one-fifth of the city’s Zip codes, just 30 per­cent of them are in the poorest one-fifth—a dy­nam­ic that re­search­ers in part at­trib­ute to New York’s real-es­tate lim­it­a­tions. Up­per-middle-class areas ap­pear to have got­ten about as many new pre-K seats as have the poorest ones. And roughly 11,000 4-year-olds liv­ing in those poorest neigh­bor­hoods aren’t even en­rolled in the pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to Fuller.

The may­or’s of­fice did not re­spond to nu­mer­ous re­quests for com­ment be­fore this story was pub­lished. However, De­vora Kaye, the spokes­wo­man for the city’s Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment, sent an emailed re­sponse after the story ran strongly dis­put­ing Fuller’s find­ings:

This study is based on er­rors and false as­sump­tions that no early-edu­ca­tion ex­pert would make. Every 4-year-old be­ne­fits from a high-qual­ity edu­ca­tion­al ex­per­i­ence which is why we boos­ted the num­ber of seats across the City. Now, nearly two-thirds of free, full-day, high-qual­ity pre-K seats are in neigh­bor­hoods be­low the City’s me­di­an in­come. We are ex­pand­ing pre-K to every eli­gible 4-year-old, and we are com­mit­ted to meet­ing this goal.

Later, de Bla­sio spokes­man Wiley Norvell shared this state­ment, too:

Dr. Fuller com­pletely misses the point. Thou­sands of chil­dren, most of them in low-in­come com­munit­ies, now have pre-k for the very first time. But part of our mis­sion is also to cre­ate bet­ter op­tions even for those who had some sort of child­care be­fore. When a fam­ily that had to pay thou­sands out of pock­et is now get­ting pre-K for free, that’s a win for that fam­ily. When a child that would have sat in day­care is now get­ting high-qual­ity, edu­ca­tion­ally en­rich­ing pre-k in­stead, that’s a win for that child. And when a com­munity that pre­vi­ously only had half-day op­tions now has pre-k for the whole day, that’s a win for that com­munity. The whole point of this pro­gram is to cre­ate high-qual­ity, free, full-day op­tions for every fam­ily—every child, rich and poor. That’s why we’re here. And by any hon­est meas­ure, that’s what we’re achiev­ing.

The may­or’s ad­min­is­tra­tion made a sim­il­ar ar­gu­ment in re­sponse to Fuller’s pre­lim­in­ary study last fall, say­ing that his use of per­cent­age-growth data rather than hard num­bers was mis­lead­ing be­cause it failed to ac­count for the fact that many poor neigh­bor­hoods already had preschool seats.

Ac­cord­ing to the de Bla­sio ad­min­is­tra­tion, many more low-in­come kids are be­ing served: As Kaye in­dic­ated, al­most two-thirds of the new seats are in neigh­bor­hoods be­low the city’s me­di­an in­come of $50,000 for a fam­ily of four, ac­cord­ing to an in­form­a­tion­al sheet the of­fice dis­trib­uted to re­port­ers after the news broke. The doc­u­ment also chal­lenges the premise that 41 per­cent and 30 per­cent of slots are in the richest neigh­bor­hoods and poorest neigh­bor­hoods, re­spect­ively, say­ing the data “is mix­ing apples and or­anges” be­cause it refers to “the en­tire preschool land­scape” in the city for chil­dren ages two through five—not just the may­or’s uni­ver­sal pre-k ini­ti­at­ive. And the fact that the num­bers are tilted to­ward middle-class and af­flu­ent fam­il­ies, ac­cord­ing to the may­or’s of­fice, is based solely on the fact that these areas have more pre-k pro­grams, in­clud­ing private ones, to be­gin with.

But the study finds that, though de Bla­sio’s of­fice in­sists that the new pro­gram is be­ne­fit­ting lower-in­come parts of the city, that claim fails to take in­to ac­count the much high­er num­bers of 4-year-olds liv­ing in poor neigh­bor­hoods than in more af­flu­ent ones. Fol­low­ing up on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s re­sponse, Fuller said the per­cent­ages re­veal that de Bla­sio is “evenly spread­ing new seats across the city, rich and poor … and this fails to move the sys­tem to­ward equit­able ac­cess.”

“To [de Bla­sio’s] cred­it, they did en­roll about 10,000 chil­dren in neigh­bor­hoods be­low the me­di­an in­come of all fam­il­ies; it’s just that when you ad­just for where 4-year-olds live” the dis­tri­bu­tion of seats doesn’t match the need, Fuller said, point­ing to sim­il­ar back­lash his re­search got last Novem­ber, when he pub­lished pre­lim­in­ary re­search on the pro­gram. “When we put out our first ana­lys­is, they said, ‘Not true, we en­rolled 10,000 kids from low-in­come fam­il­ies’—but a lot of them were pulled out of ex­ist­ing pro­grams.”

Fuller cited a preschool he and his team vis­ited in East Har­lem that said it had lost 54 kids to the new pub­lic pre-K cen­ters: “These were kids of low-in­come par­ents in East Har­lem who wer­en’t pay­ing any­thing for preschool. [De Bla­sio] has ex­pan­ded [preschool among] lower-in­come fam­il­ies but hasn’t in­vited new fam­il­ies in­to the sys­tem. He’s just play­ing mu­sic­al chairs and draw­ing low-in­come kids out of ex­ist­ing preschools.”

In­deed, un­der pres­sure to meet de Bla­sio’s en­roll­ment tar­get—which the­or­et­ic­ally amounts to more than 73,000 chil­dren by next school year—the city ag­gress­ively and hast­ily re­cruited kids to the city pro­gram. As many as three-fifths of those 26,000 chil­dren left ex­ist­ing preschools that aren’t par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pub­lic pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to Fuller. About 40 per­cent of those 26,000 slots were cre­ated in pub­lic schools, while the rest were div­vied up among some 500 private cen­ters that were able to con­tract with the city. (Many of the cen­ters that ap­plied for the pro­gram, ac­cord­ing to Fuller, were re­jec­ted; there are about 1,900 privately op­er­ated preschools in the city, mean­ing that nearly three-fourths of them have po­ten­tially lost busi­ness.)

That could also mean that de Bla­sio’s pre-K pro­gram isn’t ne­ces­sar­ily achiev­ing its ob­ject­ive of sig­ni­fic­antly ex­pand­ing ac­cess to chil­dren who wouldn’t have oth­er­wise en­rolled in preschool. Draw­ing from sur­veys con­duc­ted among a ran­dom sample of the preschools in the city that didn’t get fund­ing last fall, the re­search­ers con­cluded that these cen­ters have each lost an av­er­age of nearly 10 chil­dren to pre-K cen­ters that are par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­gram. Ex­tra­pol­at­ing from those sur­vey res­ults, the re­search­ers es­tim­ate that between 10,350 and 15,950 of the 26,000 new slots were filled by kids who were already slated to at­tend preschool. Like the East Har­lem ex­ample, some of these preschools are well-es­tab­lished cen­ters that have long served low-in­come fam­il­ies, of­ten thanks to grant money and oth­er aid. This re­dis­tri­bu­tion pro­cess, the re­search­ers say, has cre­ated in­stabil­ity for chil­dren and weak­ens the city’s early-edu­ca­tion net­work as a whole, cre­at­ing “waste­ful com­pet­i­tion” between the fee-based cen­ters and the pub­lic ones.

New York City is home to some of the largest in­come gaps in the United States; the chasm between Man­hat­tan’s richest and poorest house­holds in 2013 was the coun­try’s largest, ac­cord­ing to census data. And the state of New York, ac­cord­ing to some data sets, has the highest cen­ter-based preschool care in the coun­try, prob­ably be­cause of what it costs in the city. For the av­er­age low-in­come fam­ily in 2012, preschool tu­ition ac­coun­ted for nearly two-thirds of its house­hold earn­ings; for a me­di­um-in­come fam­ily, roughly half of its house­hold earn­ings went to pre-K tu­ition. Child Care Aware es­tim­ates that the av­er­age an­nu­al cost of cen­ter-based care for a 4-year-old in New York that year was $12,355—more than the amount a four-year City Uni­versity of New York col­lege charges for yearly tu­ition.

What that pic­ture amounts to is a two-tiered edu­ca­tion sys­tem that starts when kids are just tod­dlers—the gen­es­is of an achieve­ment gap that widens over time. In New York City, as in many places, early edu­ca­tion has largely been a lux­ury re­served only for fam­il­ies of means. And while re­search on the long-term be­ne­fits of preschool are widely de­bated, most ex­perts seem to agree that it can have a sig­ni­fic­ant im­pact on later out­comes. That’s par­tic­u­larly true for dis­ad­vant­aged chil­dren, who wouldn’t oth­er­wise have ac­cess to the kind of stim­u­la­tion a preschool set­ting can provide: everything from lan­guage de­vel­op­ment to prop­er nu­tri­tion. Hav­ing high-qual­ity early edu­ca­tion, some small-scale stud­ies sug­gest, can de­crease the like­li­hood that a child will have to re­peat a grade, get ar­res­ted, and rely on wel­fare.

Lead­ers ran­ging from politi­cians to busi­ness ex­ec­ut­ives are in­creas­ingly aware of these con­clu­sions, and many have been try­ing to ex­pand preschool op­por­tun­it­ies for years. New York City, for its part, has long tried to ramp up ac­cess. Former May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg, who served from 2002 to 2014, sought to ex­pand pre-K of­fer­ings in low-in­come parts of the city. Though Bloomberg’s ap­proach differed from de Bla­sio’s in that it wasn’t fo­cused on uni­ver­sal ex­pan­sion, that ini­ti­at­ive, too, had lim­ited suc­cess—and largely for sim­il­ar reas­ons: New York City’s per­en­ni­al space lim­it­a­tions and high-cost real es­tate. As the edu­ca­tion news source Chalk­beat New York re­cently re­por­ted, the city is scour­ing pub­lic-school build­ings for classroom space (only six charter schools are cur­rently par­ti­cip­at­ing in the pro­gram), as well as hav­ing real-es­tate brokers search for ad­di­tion­al private loc­a­tions. “The city is so built out—it’s so hard to find space,” Fuller said.

New York City’s pre-K pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to Fuller, prob­ably ex­pan­ded more eas­ily in middle-class areas be­cause that’s where space is avail­able. Hence, a para­dox: The areas that are ar­gu­ably most in need of ex­pan­ded pre-K op­tions are pre­cisely the places where it’s most dif­fi­cult to roll out new seats.

It’s a para­dox that cre­ates thorny is­sues polit­ic­ally, too. “It’s a sort of be­dev­il­ing di­lemma for Demo­crats—do they want to re­main fo­cused on in­equal­ity and nar­row­ing dis­par­it­ies in kids’ learn­ing or, in an elec­tion sea­son, are they go­ing to totally slip over to a middle-class agenda?” Fuller said. “De Bla­sio is really op­er­at­ing for the lat­ter and not the former.”

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