Leading the Country on Pre-K
Leading the Country on Pre-K
Mayor Bill de Blasio has every right to call the agreement between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders in Albany to finance a vast expansion of prekindergarten in New York City a major victory — for him politically and for tens of thousands of children who will be put on a path to a better future.
The amount — $600 million for two years, to start — is not everything Mr. de Blasio said he needed, and it won't be raised through a higher income tax on high-earning New Yorkers, an idea that Mr. Cuomo decisively rejected. But never mind, the de Blasio administration says, $300 million a year is enough to offer free, full-day, high-quality, prekindergarten classes across the city, at $10,000 per 4-year-old. New York is poised to make a commitment to preschool on a larger scale than any city in the country.
The burden is now on Mr. de Blasio and the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, to take the money and set up a credible, high-quality prekindergarten program in just five months. Their aim is to have 53,000 children enrolled by September, and 73,000 by the 2015-16 school year. An understandable — and not unwise — reaction is to count the many ways this vision can come undone.
One is through a dearth of quality. The city expects about 60 percent of the programs to be run not by public schools but community-based organizations. Many of them are excellent, but it will be a challenge to make sure that every educational nonprofit in every neighborhood can provide safe and well-managed classrooms with excellent teachers. Community organizations have lower-paid, less-experienced teachers than the public schools and don't have to meet the same teacher-certification requirements.
The administration says that it is close to naming the schools where it will place the preschool programs to open in September. It reports a sharp jump in job applications from certified teachers and says schools and community organizations have proposed making available 29,000 new preschool seats, 8,000 more than the city says it needs.
It has just begun the daunting job of persuading tens of thousands of parents to sign up their children for programs not available before, which means putting together an outreach effort on a huge scale, especially for English-language learners and residents of public housing, where benefits of expanded preschool will be most strongly felt.
Whether state financing will carry over many years remains a question. Although legislative leaders have pledged a total of $1.5 billion over five years for the statewide prekindergarten expansion, we can expect to see Mr. de Blasio and his aides trooping back to Albany in coming years for budget battles to come. And separate from the preschool initiative, the second part of Mr. de Blasio's education agenda was citywide after-school programs for middle-schools. That $190-million-a-year proposal was to be financed through the rejected tax, and now plans for it are unclear. It must not be forgotten.
When Mr. de Blasio was running in a crowded field of Democrats and making ambitious promises, it was easy to view the preschool and after-school proposals as wishful, if not grandiose. But he has moved doggedly, and despite predictions that his prekindergarten tax would fail, which it did, the city got the money anyway. With the money struggle over for now, the important work gets harder.