New York City Has Created a Model Pre-K Program—Affordable, Accessible, High Quality

A new report from Padres & Jovenes Unidos in Denver, Colorado names the classic problems that block families’ ability to enroll their children in preschool.  First there are not enough high-quality pre-K programs in the poorest parts of Denver to provide universal access to pre-Kindergarten.  Second is the matter of affordability: “In Denver, the average annual cost of pre-K in a center, for just one child is $11,477… While there are several sources of funds that can assist Denver parents in covering the cost of pre-K, each has significant gaps that prevent it from coming close to meeting the financial needs of all the families….”  And finally there is the uneven quality of the programs: “In particular, parents are experiencing difficulties around inadequate language instruction… and the overuse of harsh disciplinary measures such as suspensions and expulsions….”  The authors conclude: “(I)n Denver, while virtually every child in predominantly white, affluent neighborhoods attends pre-K, only a small fraction of children in predominantly Latino, lower-income neighborhoods of Southwest Denver are enrolled in pre-K.”

And in Ohio, Policy Matters explains:  “(J)ust 4 percent of 4-year-olds from low-income families are enrolled in preschool, compared with 29 percent nationally.  Not only is Ohio behind most of the nation in preschool and childcare support, differing eligibility standards between the two programs means many kids miss out on the opportunities.  Some parents can’t send their kids to half-day preschool because they don’t qualify for childcare assistance for the other half day.  Between underinvestment and misalignment, Ohio is falling behind in developing the workforce of the future…..”  “In this budget (2016-17), Ohio will spend almost what we did during the recession (2008-2009) and less than we did during the budget for 2010 (in inflation-adjusted dollars).”

While these stories represent examples of states and localities struggling to fund and provide pre-school education, David Kirp’s piece in Sunday’s NY Times tells a very different story in New York City:  “In 2013, Bill de Blasio campaigned for mayor on a promise of universal pre-K.  Two years later, New York City enrolls more children in full-day pre-K than any state except Georgia, and its preschool enrollment exceeds the total number of students in San Francisco or Boston.”  Today preschools provide publicly funded programs—with no charge to families—for 68,547 of New York City’s children.  Kirp continues: “In New York, the percentage of 4-year-olds in prekindergarten is essentially the same in every neighborhood, in part because the city made an effort to attract families across the demographic spectrum.”  The city sent recruiters door-to-door.  To set up a program that is accessible in every neighborhood,  the city recruited 2,000 teachers, opened 3,000 classrooms, and vetted 300 community providers as partners.

What about quality in a program that folds in public and non-profit providers?  “The teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree.  They receive in-class tutoring, and help from social workers.  The curriculum has been well vetted and the classrooms are well stocked.  There’s a spot in a full-day class for every 4-year-old.  The city is spending $10,200 for each child….”  Effective coaching, writes Kirp, is driving quality and ensuring that the curriculum is shaped around the way young children learn: through play.

Here is how Kirp describes a lesson on apples at Ira’s, a daycare in Briarwood, Queens: “A lesson on apples at Ira’s incorporates everything from art to arithmetic.  The children draw apples, copy the names of the different varieties, peel and slice them, determine whether the weight of an apple changes when it’s boiled, build an orchard with blocks, ‘sell’ apple pies at the classroom bakery and examine slices under a microscope.  The youngsters work in small groups, and the teacher moves among them, asking questions and listening closely to determine who needs help.”  While teachers are being taught to incorporate play everywhere, the particular focus of the day is up to the providers.  Kirp describes one preschool that incorporates Mandarin Chinese every day.

New York City’s pre-Kindergarten programs are affordable; they do not charge families tuition.  They are accessible (and well attended) in neighborhoods across the city’s five boroughs. And the city demonstrates a commitment to improving quality.

New York City has shown what can accomplished through public investment, intense effort, and planning.  States like Ohio, where Governor John Kasich and the legislature have continued to reduce state taxes, can see the impact on pre-K and on state-subsidized childcare.  Policy Matters elaborates: “Funding for early care and education jumped in the 2016-2017 budget, providing a significant increase in pre-K slots from a very low starting point.  Yet funding across the system, which dropped in the years following the recession, is not yet restored to previous peaks.  Pre-K enrollment has plunged since 2000.  Public childcare (a different program in Ohio than Pre-K) serves more kids, but with less money, meaning quality has dropped.  It’s much harder to qualify for help in Ohio than in other states.”

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