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Universal Pre-K in NYC? Three Questions, a Choice, and Two Pieces of Advice for the Mayor-elect

Now that Bill deBlasio is officially the next Mayor of New York City, a few folks have asked me for my take on the universal pre-k proposal that was a centerpiece of his campaign. As is often the case with campaign plans, there's not a lot of detail out there, so I don't have a lot to say. But here are a few key questions: 

  • Will the funding come through? As others have noted, deBlasio's proposed funding mechanism for pre-k, a tax increase on high-income New Yorkers, requires approval in Albany. That's not out of the question, but it's also not in the bag. But the funding issue is actually easy compared to two bigger implementation questions....
  • Where will the supply come from? Making pre-k universally available in New York City, and transitioning more kids from half- to full-day slots, will require significant increases in the supply of pre-k slots. But many elementary schools don't have space to add pre-k classrooms or slots. Community-based providers play a major role in delivering public pre-k in New York City now, but expanding the supply of slots in these providers can also be challenging, due to quality, capacity, and real estate considerations. Charter schools are another potential source of pre-k slots, but have been largely shut out of offering pre-k due to a quirk of New York law.
  • What about quality?  Evidence shows that well-designed, publicly funded pre-k programs can deliver quality and positive  learning outcomes at scale (New Yorkers need only look across the river, to New Jersey, to see this in practice). But delivering those results is dependent upon both the quality of pre-k providers and the quality of the policies and systems that set standards and monitor and support providers to achieve them. We don't know anything about the quality standards deBlasio proposes for pre-k or the strategies and systems his yet-to-be-named chancellor would put in place to monitor, support, and improve pre-k programs. But this stuff matters a lot--and it's complicated. 

If the Mayor-elect pushes forward with his pre-k proposal, he'll join the growing ranks of Mayors nationally--including San Antonio's Julian Castro and former Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (now the Governor of Colorado)--who have taken the initiative to lead on pre-k when state and federal leaders have failed to do so. But high-quality pre-k, the kind that delivers results for kids, isn't just a matter of funding or something that can be magicked into place by political promises. It requires smart policy design and lots of hard work. In implementing pre-k the Mayor elect will face a critical choice: With high standards that focus on what matters most in pre-k quality (not just inputs!); smart policy design;  and strategies to engage and develop a robust supply of diverse, high-quality pre-k providers, universal pre-k could make a huge difference for the next generation of NYC kids. If it just means creating more teaching jobs and expanding access to full-day programs offered in mediocre elementary schools (the ones most likely to have capacity to add slots) or to existing community based programs without high standards or quality improvement, it will be a colossal missed opportunity. If the Mayor elect really wants to achieve the former, rather than the latter, two pieces of advice: First, the NYC DOE's current early childhood director, Sophia Pappas, has done exemplary work to both expand pre-k access and support quality pre-k, and any effort to implement universal pre-k would benefit greatly from her continued leadership. Second, given the challenges of growing the supply of high-quality pre-k providers in New York, the city really can't afford to exclude an entire class of potential quality supply. deBlasio has hardly established himself as a friend of charter schools, but offering a path for high-quality charters to participate in any expanded pre-k program could be a way to mend fences and send a signal that this pre-k intiaitive is a serious effort to improve school readiness, not just pander to liberal and labor constituencies.  

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