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The Lessons of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Universal Pre-K Initiative

September 7, 2017
Rebecca Mead
The New Yorker

Today , New York City’s 1.1 million public-school students return to their classrooms—or, in the case of about seventy thousand four-year-olds enrolled in the city’s pre-K program, go to their classrooms for the very first time. It’s been four years since Bill de Blasio bested John Liu, Bill Thompson, Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner, and others in the Democratic primary—in what New Yorkers might recall, with nostalgia for a more innocent time, as an election that was colorful without being toxic. Among the most popular of de Blasio’s proposals during the campaign was his promise to extend public pre-K, which hitherto had supplied seats for only about half the eligible children in the city, leaving the parents of the remainder to scramble for family care, or to fork over for costly private programs.

Campaign promises are easy to make and fiendishly hard to keep: homelessness, the reduction of which was another signature issue in de Blasio’s 2013 campaign, has increased during the past four years. De Blasio is up for reëlection in November, and, while it seems likely that he will win another four years as Mayor, not all New Yorkers have been impressed by his administration’s performance, which has been marked by investigations into campaign finance and ethics, though no charges were filed. But de Blasio will rightfully be able to point to pre-K as a significant accomplishment: he delivered with a swiftness that even skeptics were obliged to acknowledge, and on a scale that is nationally unprecedented. Two thousand teachers were recruited for the effort, and more than three thousand new classrooms were created in school buildings and approved community centers. The September after de Blasio won the primary, thirteen thousand new pre-K seats were made available to any New York family who wished to apply—rich, poor, or anywhere in between. The places were filled following a thoroughgoing outreach that had taken place in the preceding months. That spring, it seemed hard to find a subway car that was not advertising what struck many parents as an implausibly attractive offering: a safe, cost-free, enriching environment in which their children might garner the foundations of literacy and numeracy, and reap valuable social skills. By September, 2015, more than sixty-eight thousand four-year-olds in New York were the beneficiaries of an extra year of free public education.

The significance of New York’s large-scale investment in pre-K for all can hardly be overstated. Studies have shown that children who have been enrolled in high-quality pre-K programs—in classrooms led by skilled and knowledgeable teachers who engage children in imaginative play and block building, and read to them and teach them songs—have long-term positive outcomes on their future academic and even post-academic lives. One much-cited longitudinal study, the Perry Preschool Study, which began tracking students in Ypsilanti, Michigan, in the early nineteen-sixties, found that those who had been enrolled in a preschool program were, at age forty, more likely to hold a job, had a higher income, and were less likely to have committed crimes than their contemporaries who had not received the same early education. A case for pre-K can be made on the bluntest of economic arguments: some studies have estimated that for every dollar that is invested in high-quality pre-K education—New York spends nearly twelve thousand dollars per student per school year—as much as ten dollars is saved in costs for other government services or expenditures down the line.