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The Largest Voucher Program You've Never Heard About

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To continue, from my first blog, on the topic of pre-K: 

 A handful of states and cities around the country sponsor universal pre-K for four-year-olds, including Georgia, Oklahoma, and, most recently, New York City.  Others, including Boston, are moving in that direction.  Many believe, with justification, that these are wise investments, given the evidence that high-quality pre-K offers long-ranging benefits to students, which can more than make up for the cost of the programs.  The nature and extent of these benefits are the subject of debate among scholars and advocates, but one fascinating aspect of these programs has gone largely unnoticed:  the reliance on private providers who receive public funding.

New York's program, which I admire, is a good example.  Mayor de Blasio has made impressive progress on his promise to provide universal pre-K for all four-year olds in the city. As I mentioned in my last blog, education officials now talk about pre-K as part of the education "system" in New York.  A recent op-ed in the New York Times, lauding the New York program, also referred to it as a "public" pre-K program.  And from one perspective, the pre-K program looks just like the rest of the school system--it is publicly funded and available to all.

From another perspective, however, the pre-K program in New York is quite different from how K-12 works in the same city.  Unlike the K-12 system, which relies overwhelmingly on traditional public schools and some public charter schools, the pre-K system relies heavily on private providers.  Community-based providers, as they are called, account for nearly half of the 53,000 pre-K slots in New York.  These providers can be not-for-profit, for-profit, and/or religiously based organizations.  Parents have the option to choose among a range of settings, though they are not guaranteed their first choice of schools.  The City provides full funding to the providers, whether public or private.   

Here's the key question:  Is this basically a voucher program?  And the follow up:  if including private providers in a "public" pre-K program is ok, why not for K-12 students as well?  To be sure, the pre-K program has some differences from a classic voucher program, in that the funding goes directly to schools rather than to parents (although that actually raises some constitutional questions given the inclusion of religious organizations).  And parents have to choose from a set list of providers, with the City making the final choice.  But I've always thought the central--and most controversial--element of voucher programs is that they allow public funding to be used to finance "private" schools.  The pre-K program in New York, like ones elsewhere in the country, shares that central feature.

It is striking that the inclusion of private providers in this "public" program hasn't generated much controversy, aside from some objection to a recent decision to allow religiously affiliated pre-K programs to take time outs during the day to allow for optional religious exercises for their students.

One might argue that pre-K is simply outside the traditional K-12 system and therefore is (and should be?) subject to different rules.  But as pre-K expands, it is getting harder to think of pre-K as completely separate from K-12, especially in those places, like New York, where pre-K is universally available.  In this sense, pre-K is different from college, which is still considered separate from K-12 education systems, in part precisely because college is not universally available. 

The fact that enrollment in pre-K is optional might also be a way to separate it from K-12 education.  But here it's worth pointing out that kindergarten is also optional in all but 15 states.  Yet even where enrollment is optional, most people still view kindergarten as the beginning of public education, hence the ubiquitous references to "K-12" systems of public education.  From this perspective, and because pre-K in New York is increasingly described as being part of the public education system, pre-K looks a lot more like kindergarten than it looks like college.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that the way pre-K is structured, in New York or elsewhere, is a bad thing or cause for alarm.  My point is simply to highlight an apparent anomaly.  Observers and policymakers refer easily to New York's pre-K program as part of the "public" education system or at the very least as a "public" education program.  Yet vouchers for K-12 private schools are often criticized for "privatizing" public education.  Perhaps the experience unfolding in New York suggests that the line between "public" and "private" may be blurrier than we think, and that there may be more than one way to structure, and describe, a "public" education system.  More on these last points in my next blog.

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