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New York City Decries Preschool Seat Location Analysis as 'Misleading'

New York City's new preschool initiative brought full-day seats primarily to ZIP codes below the city's median income of about $51,000, according to city spokesman Wiley Norvell—a "devastating" rebuttal, he said, to the thesis of a recent analysis that contends that the expansion primarily brought seats to wealthier boroughs. 

"The usage of statistics in this study is really misleading," Norvell said in an interview. Expanding preschool has been a flagship initiative for the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on a pledge to bring universal preschool to the city. Earlier this year, state lawmakers allotted $340 million for preschool expansion statewide; $300 million went to New York City. 

The analysis, released Oct. 8, was led by Bruce Fuller, an educational researcher based at the University of California, Berkeley. "It's odd that a mayor's office would try to squash news coverage of an independent analysis," he said.

Norvell said that 67 percent of the approximately 30,000 new preschool seats went to ZIP codes with income levels below the city's median income. He also criticized the report's use of percentages in the report instead of raw numbers. He said, for example, that a neighborhood going from 10 to 40 seats would show a 300 percent increase; while a neighborhood that increased from 1,000 to 2,000 seats would show only a 100 percent hike. 

Preschool in the city is offered both through public schools and through community-based organizations. The expansion efforts were grafted on to existing programs, Norvell said, and many of the community-based organizations already operated in low-income areas or served low-income children. (The analysis did not capture the family income of children actually enrolled in preschool, only the location of the slots.) 

Moria Cappio, the vice president of early childhood programs for the Children's Aid Society, a community-based organization, added 210 seats in the expansion and now serves about 1,200 preschool students. One of the high-needs areas her agency serves is in Staten Island's North Shore, which includes low-income neighborhoods in a borough that overall has a higher income compared to other city boroughs, such as the Bronx. 

"Our experience has been the complete opposite of the report," Cappio said. "I think it may just come down to [the fact that] one year over the other doesn't really tell the whole story."

Fuller's Response

Fuller would not release the raw numbers used for his analysis. He said he could not capture all of the pre- and post-expansion seats because of incomplete information available from the city. However, Fuller says that from the figures he was able to collect, more than half of of all new seats in schools and community-based organizations are situated in ZIP codes with average incomes above the city's median income.

"The mayor's office is making claims based on data which they have been unwilling to release for objective analysis," said Mr. Fuller, who has advocated on behalf of targeting preschool to the most needy children.

"One purpose we do have is that we try to push political leaders to actually assess the effects of their policies," he added. "We are quite explicity nudging the de Blasio administration to really track which families are benefiting from this policy." 

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