Opinion

An Early Childhood Intervention That Has Been A Long Time Coming

New York is close to a breakthrough in funding and providing universal pre-K.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio talks with children after reading them a book in a pre-kindergarten class at P.S. 130 on February 25, 2014 in New York City. De Blasio stopped by the classroom after a news conference about his plans for universal pre-kindergarten in New York City. 
National Journal
Melanie Hartzog
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Melanie Hartzog
March 24, 2014, 8:19 p.m.

For the first time in years, poli­cy­makers in New York City and Al­bany are work­ing in earn­est to de­liv­er what should be a ba­sic right for every child: ac­cess to a high-qual­ity pre-kinder­garten (pre-K) pro­gram. As New York City’s former Deputy Com­mis­sion­er for Early Child­hood Ser­vices, and now Ex­ec­ut­ive Dir­ect­or of Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund-New York, I know that one of the most ef­fect­ive strategies to ad­dress poverty and in­equal­ity is to in­vest in early child­hood de­vel­op­ment and edu­ca­tion.

New York’s le­gis­lature voted in 1997 — 17 years ago — to fund uni­ver­sal pre-K, but state law­makers have nev­er been able to identi­fy a re­li­able fund­ing source to de­liv­er on the prom­ise. Now that’s changed. May­or Bill de Bla­sio has laid out a con­crete and com­mon-sense pro­pos­al to mod­estly raise taxes on the wealth­i­est res­id­ents in New York City to fund pre-K pro­grams there. Gov­ernor An­drew Cuomo agrees pre-K is a pri­or­ity and pro­posed a mod­est in­vest­ment to­ward achiev­ing uni­ver­sal­ity. And in the most re­cent sign that the years-old im­passe is near­ing a solu­tion, the State As­sembly and Sen­ate are both pro­pos­ing strategies to fin­ance pre-K, with the As­sembly in full sup­port of May­or de Bla­sio’s plan. This is a tre­mend­ously en­cour­aging first step.

The case for mak­ing sure 4-year-olds can ac­cess high-qual­ity pre-K is simple and power­ful. We know if we prop­erly sup­port chil­dren in their early years of rap­id brain de­vel­op­ment, not only will they be­ne­fit, but so will our state. In­vest­ing in early edu­ca­tion is not only the just but also the smart and cost-ef­fect­ive thing to do. No­bel laur­eate eco­nom­ist James Heck­man es­tim­ates a lifelong eco­nom­ic rate of re­turn of 7 to 10 per­cent each year for every dol­lar in­ves­ted in qual­ity early child­hood pro­grams. Stu­dents with ac­cess to good pre-K pro­grams are much more likely than their peers to gradu­ate from high school and achieve eco­nom­ic sta­bil­ity.

Ac­cord­ing to New York City fig­ures, there are cur­rently more than 53,000 chil­dren in the five bor­oughs who don’t have the op­por­tun­ity to at­tend pre-K pro­grams, or whose pre-K pro­grams are in­ad­equate. The May­or’s plan pro­poses reach­ing all those chil­dren. It must hap­pen now. We be­lieve every child in New York State should also have that op­por­tun­ity to go to a qual­ity preschool, and we ap­plaud our le­gis­lat­ors for zero­ing in on a mech­an­ism to de­liv­er pre-K statewide at long last.

The unit­ing prin­ciple here is that when we know we can do more to give chil­dren a found­a­tion for fu­ture suc­cess — and when the polit­ic­al will ex­ists and the fund­ing is with­in reach—it is ur­gent that we seize the mo­ment. We know high-qual­ity pre-K and full-day kinder­garten are vi­tal pro­grams that help chil­dren thrive, and the mo­mentum in New York is heart­en­ing. Now it’s time to fol­low through and make this long­stand­ing prom­ise a real­ity.

Melanie Hartzog is the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund-New York of­fice. The Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund-New York (CDF-NY) is the New York of­fice of the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund whose Leave No Child Be­hind® mis­sion is to en­sure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Mor­al Start in life and suc­cess­ful pas­sage to adult­hood with the help of caring fam­il­ies and com­munit­ies. For more in­form­a­tion about CDF-NY, vis­it www.cd­fny.org.

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