Blog · New York City

Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Program: Neither Free, Nor Full-Day, Nor High-Quality

Applications for Round 1 of New York City’s Universal Pre-K (UPK) program are due on Friday, February 24, 2017. That’s President’s Day Week, by the way, which means that schools will be closed during the final five days parents are technically allowed to be touring and and making their ranking decisions.

Colorful posters are hanging up all over the city, in school windows, on wire playground fences, and in subways,  proclaiming Mayor Bill deBlasio’s signature initiative of Free, Full-Day, High-Quality Pre-K. But how accurate are those claims? We take a look:

FREE?

It goes without saying that nothing provided by the city is free. Just because parents aren’t writing checks doesn’t mean they aren’t paying for it some other way, primarily through taxes and/or the loss of different services their money would otherwise be used for.

I’ve already covered how some of that tax money is being used to subsidize religious schools and community organizations, despite de Blasio’s opposition to the concept of school vouchers. (There is also a separate segregation issue.)

But the primary people who are paying for the so-called Pre-K For All initiative are low-income parents.  Prior to the Mayor’s UPK program that deems that every four-year -old is guaranteed a preschool seat (though not in their local school, and not even necessarily in their neighborhood because some students are offered spots as far as 40 blocks away), there used to be income requirements to determine who qualified. Now, low-income families are competing for seats with wealthier applicants, even as a handful of centers do continue to offer priority admissions to those below a certain income cut-off.

But that’s not enough. Once, the subsidized centers that served low-income families were able to offer care for ten hours a day, twelve months a year. But when de Blasio standardized and centralized the system, they were forced to cut back to regular school hours, leaving families scrambling to come up with summer and afternoon alternatives. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why the program now serves less children from the lowest income group – the group that was supposed to be most helped by this expansion.

FULL-DAY?

Or maybe it’s because, along with cutting down from twelve months to ten, UPK also reduced centers’ hours from 8 AM to 6 PM, to about 8:30 AM to 2:20 PM. That’s not full-day by any working parent’s stretch of the imagination. Sure, many UPKs offer after-care. For a price. No wonder some parents have said “to hell with their free, full-time” entitlement, and opted to pay for a program that’s actually full-time and year-round.

HIGH-QUALITY?

NYC’s Department of Education argues that the reason over half their high-school students graduate non-college ready is because, among other things, there is inadequate Early Childhood Education to prepare children for the academic rigors of Kindergarten and beyond. (De Blasio also once claimed that UPK could prevent teen suicide, so clearly his magical thinking knows no bounds.) A reasonable question is how thirteen years of a bad education will be fixed with 14 years of a bad education, but, no worries: remember, that critical first year is “high-quality.”

When Pre-K For All first ballooned from serving 20,000 to allegedly over 70,000 children (although a quick perusal of the city’s own brochure confirms that many schools don’t fill – but why should that stop de Blasio from opening even more? Over-budget? Who’s over-budget?), they obviously needed more teachers. When talking up his initiative, De Blasio promised that an experienced expert with a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education would be over-seeing every classroom. Shockingly, there were not thousands of Masters in Early Childhood Education candidates wandering the streets of New York, unemployed.

So the city did the next best thing. They took recent college graduates with Bachelor’s degrees in absolutely anything, gave them six weeks of training over the summer – all theory, no classroom practice – and set them loose.

Is it a surprise that instruction varies wildly from preschool to preschool?

Let’s put it this way: If all UPKs were equally good, why would you need individual quality snapshots? Or why would the city itself need to shut down any of these equally excellent providers.

If  you would allow me to channel my inner Saturday Night Live Mike Myers/Linda Richmond sketches from the early 1990s, “NYC’s UPK is neither free, nor full day, nor high-quality. Discuss.”

What do you think?

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