The Promise of Universal Pre-K

New York City's prekindergarten program is far from perfect, but it's the kind of universal public good we have to defend and expand.

Pasco Schools / Flickr

In his 2013 campaign for New York City mayor, Bill de Blasio made universal prekindergarten a central part of his platform. Initially an underdog, de Blasio capitalized on a post-Occupy moment of indignation at social and economic inequality. The prospect of “opportunity” that universal pre-K would provide dovetailed nicely with the “Tale of Two Cities” ethos he pushed on the stump.

Despite New York City’s existing pre-K offerings, which were fairly robust then, the promise of universal, full-day, high-quality prekindergarten was still a grand one. Before 2014, New York City had about 36,000 half-day pre-K seats and 19,000 full-day seats according to the city Department of Education. There are about 70,000 four-year-olds in the city. If elected, de Blasio’s administration would have had to increase funding to make those half-day seats full day, as well as add 15,000 more full day seats if it wanted to provide for every family of a four year old who desired pre-K.

Nearly three years after the election, de Blasio has done that. Roughly $300 million was secured in additional state funding to expand the program. By the start of the school year this fall, enrollment numbers are expected to reach 70,000. After two “ramp-up” years, universal pre-K is now fully funded and staffed.

The campaign promise has been fulfilled and for progressives and socialists in favor of expanding public education, there is much to celebrate. The significant financial commitment, the expansion of free, universal education, and the widespread appeal of the program to involved families and the electorate at large are unequivocally positive developments.

But while New York’s universal prekindergarten (UPK) education is groundbreaking in many ways, structural and programmatic limitations still plague the program.

Universal pre-K reveals the power of social-democratic reforms, but it also puts into relief the structural confines these reforms face under capitalism. The dominance of privately operated pre-K centers, pay disparity between public and private workers, the lack of unionization within the sector, and the program’s precarious existence as a budget-line item are all cause for concern.

A Divided Public

Perhaps most significant for those who favor the expansion of public education is that less than half of the students in UPK are being educated in public schools.

Roughly 60 percent of the seats are located in what the Department of Education calls Early Education Centers, or EECs. This includes nonprofits and charter schools that are licensed and regulated by the DOE. The centers are supposed to provide learning opportunities for children and working conditions for teachers comparable to that of public schools. Yet while the conditions are improving as the program grows, the evidence overwhelmingly shows that inequity is still pervasive.

For the 40 percent of UPK students who attend public schools, their teachers are covered under the United Federation of Teachers contract, which affords a relatively comfortable salary starting around $50,000 per year and provides regular salary increases, health and dental care, a pension, and other benefits that teachers in EECs often lack. While the majority of EECs are non-union, a small portion (200 out of 1,150 sites) are in fact represented by the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees District Council 1707 (DC 1707).

While the wages and benefits are higher in these centers as opposed to their non-union EEC counterparts, they remain inadequate. In the UPK programs represented by DC 1707, the city administration determines worker compensation in coordination with the union and the Day Care Council of New York, a governing board of child care centers. Because former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to negotiate with city unions, these labor negotiations hadn’t been held since 2005.

Promisingly, negotiations began in October 2015 and should be finished by the start of the 2016 school year. Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, says she is optimistic that the pay and benefits would improve for childcare workers in this contract.

But of these private centers, DC 1707 represents less than 20 percent of workers. The vast majority of EECs remain unorganized and thus many staff make poverty wages. While DC 1707 could organize these centers, bafflingly, it has not.

The nature of this discrepancy in pay and working conditions is clearly drawn along lines of race and gender. As Sarah Jaffe reported about these workers in 2014, “child care workers in general are 96.5 percent female and nearly 19 percent of them live in poverty. Black and Latina women are also overrepresented in the low-paying child care professions.” The ineffectiveness of DC 1707 means that these racial and gender inequalities will persist.

After consistent opposition and pressure from organizations representing EECs, the city confirmed this past January that it would, as part of its larger increase in the minimum wage for city workers and contractors, raise the pay of all employees in the pre-K program, including teacher aides, custodians, and support staff to $15 by 2018. This schedule of increases is now in line with the statewide increase passed in April.

While certainly a small improvement, the current minimum wage for these workers is just $11.50 per hour as the school year begins and $12 by the New Year. It still leaves many teachers making a substandard living and is ultimately only a small step towards achieving a salary that provides material comfort and security for individual workers and families in New York City. And it leaves the vast majority of EEC employees without the job protection and workplace dignity that a union can provide.

Further underscoring the public and private disparity, teachers in EECs do not need to be certified to teach in New York State, unlike their colleagues in public schools. While EEC teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree, credits in early child education are not required.

The DOE does require that EEC teachers be on a “pathway” to teaching certification within three years. Yet these teachers often change positions or professions before that time is up, leaving students and families with an ever-rotating crop of poorly paid and inexperienced educators — an unfortunately familiar phenomenon in poor communities. The turnover rate for early childhood educators nationally is astoundingly high — an estimated 30 percent leave their job every year.

And getting a certification is no easy task. Those who do pursue it must work and attend school simultaneously. Even at public institutions like CUNY, the cost of credits adds up and most workers have families to support. For those who can obtain a certification, many leave for public schools where the positions are unionized.

When asked why the majority of UPK seats are not in public schools, DOE spokesperson Devora Kaye remarked in an interview that “50 percent of families selected district operated programs as their first choice and 50 percent of families selected EECs as their first choice. This shows the advantage of having both types of programs under one unified system—we are providing families with options.”

While it may be true that families choose EECs, they make these decisions within a political framework that most have little to no agency in shaping.

This orientation from the DOE replicates the ethos of school choice that was heavily favored by Bloomberg and other pro-free market education reformers, yet has scant evidence to support its continued use. Josh Wallack, Deputy Chancellor for the DOE and a key figure in the rollout of UPK accurately notes that many of these privately operated EECs have long ties in the communities they are based in. They also tend to have a longer school day, which is important for working families with children but challenging for the employees. This reality further underscores the decades-long lack of public, fully funded neighborhood schools (for pre-K and below) with unionized teachers and plentiful resources.

These more appealing aspects of EECs could easily be replicated in public schools if the money and political will were available. It made sense for the DOE to utilize the EECs when universal pre-K was launched because that system of childcare was pervasive, despite being inadequate.

Finally, in addition to the inequality between public and private programs in NYC, a harsh divide exists between funding for programs in NYC and those in New York state at large. UPK was passed largely at the behest of de Blasio, but the program was supposed to be statewide. Yet of the $340 million in state funds provided, the lion’s share, $300 million, has been earmarked for NYC despite the fact that the city only has 50% of the state’s students.

The Liberal Ethos of UPK

Policy failings aside, the guiding meritocratic philosophy of New York City’s UPK program is also misguided.

De Blasio and his supporters argued during the lead-up to the program that increased educational opportunity provided by pre-K would inevitably lead to greater “success” for those students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Yet as many educational theorists like Jean Anyon and economists like Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have long argued, programmatic changes in the educational system do not inevitably lead to a more equitable society.

Despite the implied promise that pre-K will equalize opportunity (but of course, never outcomes) for poor students, one additional year of education is no panacea for the structures of capitalism that require a massive low-wage workforce regardless of education. The rising number of college-educated workers in low-wage service sector jobs confirms this point, as does the now dime-a-dozen stories of college professors using food stamps.

When de Blasio and other liberals employ this argument, they are shying away from the larger redistributive economic policies known to reduce inequality like minimum wage increases indexed to inflation, rent control, progressive taxation, and many others.

Deputy Chancellor Wallack remarked that the UPK program fits within the larger framework of the de Blasio administration’s focus on fighting inequality, even alluding to programs like de Blasio’s housing plan as a part of that fight. He’s right — and that’s the problem.

The Power of Public Investment

These shortcomings notwithstanding, UPK provides tens of thousands of students, including those from low-income families, a year of education they would not have otherwise received. And the educational outcomes of pre-K may not even be its most significant accomplishment. The public investment in UPK has benefitted New York’s working class in numerous ways.

Perhaps the most striking benefit is the employment it has generated. Two thousand teachers were hired specifically for this program, in addition to support staff and administrators. These are jobs that did not exist before, and particularly for those in unionized public schools, many educators are now on a path to a more comfortable standard of living.

The program also benefits families by providing an additional year of free childcare before students enter kindergarten. The Hechinger Report notes that according to the Center for American Progress, “An average American family with children under age 5 spends about 9 percent of its income on childcare,” and “families living in poverty with children under age 5 in care spend 36 percent of their income on preschool bills.”

UPK eliminates this burden for one year, disproportionately benefiting those with the least resources to spare. Additionally, while children are being educated, their parents and caregivers are able to work more hours or enjoy a bit of leisure.

Like social-democratic programs nationally, universal pre-K enjoys broad support among both the electorate and the families whose children are enrolled. A November 2013 poll from Quinnipiac found that 68 percent of city voters and 63 percent of voters statewide support the idea. An outside evaluation of the program found that an astounding 92 percent of UPK-affiliated families rated their child’s program as “good” or “excellent,” and more than 90 percent reported that their child felt safe, they felt welcome at their program, and the program communicated with the families in a language they understood.

The program is also universal — at least in theory. Like K-12 public schooling, it provides access to education to all students, though certainly with inequalities and imperfections that affect all public education.

To his credit, de Blasio himself has been explicit about this intention. It is not a means-tested program like food stamps that stigmatizes the poor and ensnares them in a mess of bureaucratic red tape. Universal programs provide services not because an individual is suffering, but because all individuals have a right to them. The most oppressed often benefit the most from such programs.

As Politico reported late last year,

The majority of the city’s total pre-K enrollment has happened in the lowest-income quartile. … And while the city’s poorest neighborhoods have the highest pre-K enrollment, the city now serves six times as many children in the second-poorest quartile. Overall, 70 percent of de Blasio’s pre-K expansion has happened in ZIP codes in the city’s two poorest quartiles.

These social, economic, and educational benefits were made possible with massive public investment. UPK in New York City costs roughly $850 million per year, spread across more than 1,850 sites, paid for by a combination of city and state funds. While this is a significant chunk of budgetary change, the funding has only been guaranteed by the New York state legislature through 2019.

De Blasio had originally hoped to pay for the program through a small tax increase (from 3.86 to 4.41%) on city residents with incomes above $500,000. For those earning up to $1 million per year, it amounts on average to three bucks a day. However, New York can’t change its tax structure without state approval, and Governor Andrew Cuomo nixed that idea and provided the funding as a budget-line item instead.

This means that UPK could in theory be cut as soon as its funding runs out, which it will in 2019 unless renewed. This might seem like an outlandish possibility, but if the economic outlook worsens, UPK would be a prime target for budget hawks. The program is new, and despite its widespread appeal, might not have a large enough constituency to fight for it given that only five classes of New York families will have children who attended UPK — not to mention that the state funding is being allocated almost entirely to New York city, a possible cause for ire from residents statewide.

One need only think back to the massive cuts suffered by public schools in New York after the 2008-09 recession to be reminded of the scant value placed on public education by politicians and wealthy elites. It was not on their backs that the budget was “balanced,” but on those of students, teachers, families, and communities.

The Pedagogy of UPK

Like these political-economic considerations, the quality of teaching and instruction in UPK classrooms gives us reasons for both optimism and pessimism. David Kirp, professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley notes that an exemplary program needs “a full-day program, staffed by well-trained teachers, supported by experienced coaches and social workers, who know how to talk with, not at, youngsters; a teacher for every ten or fewer children; a challenging curriculum backed by evidence; and parental involvement.” New York is at least attempting to implement all these elements.

Of course, all this costs money — about $9,000 per student per year, according to a report by two groups, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and Early Childhood Policy Research. New York City is spending $10,200 per student, a significant cut above other states like Florida, which in 2013-2014 spent a meager $2,238 per pupil and is about equal with exemplary program like Boston’s.

Without this excellent pedagogy, students will suffer and right-wing forces will have a stronger case for defunding or eliminating UPK programs in New York and elsewhere. Tennessee’s pre-K system serves as a cautionary tale. A large, six-year longitudinal study of Tennessee’s statewide pre-K program done by Vanderbilt University and funded by the federal Department of Education showed that by the third grade, students who had participated in the pre-K program, which spends just under $5,000 per pupil, actually performed worse on measures of literacy, language, and math skills than their peers who hadn’t attended pre-K at all.

The value of those measures is just one part of what constitutes a holistic quality education; still, the findings are significant. If the quality of the program is poor, and students learn from an even earlier age that school is a static and alienating environment, their disinterest and resulting poor performance seem perfectly logical.

As New York reported upon the release of the study, Mark Lipsey, one of the lead researchers for the study,

speculated that the reason so many of the pre-K kids lost enthusiasm for school was that they ended up doing and learning the same things for three years in a row. His colleague Dale Farran toured the state’s classrooms, and in too many cases … four-year-olds were expected to sit still and listen as a group, to follow instructions from a single teacher.

So quality matters. Underscoring the discouraging findings of the Vanderbilt study, there are inspiring results reporting sustained increases in measures of academic and social outcomes from studies of excellent programs like the Perry Preschool Project and the Abecedarian Project.

Given that NYC’s program is only two years old, the jury is largely still out, but early indicators point to some positive outcomes. One assessment tool used by the Department of Education to assess the educational environment of its programs, the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale–Revised (ECERS-R), showed that roughly 80 percent of sites were sufficiently ensuring student outcomes.

Another assessment, the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS), which gauges emotional and instructional support provided by teachers, as well as classroom organization, was much better and almost matched the average score for Head Start programs nationally.

We should always question the validity of standardized measures that claim near perfect reliability and objectivity. Still, Susan Neuman, chairwoman of the teaching and learning department at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, remarked that “it’s a very promising start, and certainly we want those scores to go higher.” These results, combined with significant financial investment and a robust educational structure for UPK at large, are good signs.

On the other hand, New York’s UPK program is aligned with the controversial Common Core State Standards, now implemented in almost every state in the US. How these standards are incorporated into the UPK program is described in the guiding pedagogical document, the “Pre-K Foundation for the Common Core.” While the Common Core standards themselves are designed to be general and open to interpretation, the K-12 standards are spurring a nationwide standardization of curriculum and an ever-expanding industry of products to accompany it.

These pre-K standards are intended as “a bridge between the learning expectations of children [from] birth through [age] three and the standards for those attending K-12 in public schools.” As has been shown in the K-12 realm, these standards have the potential to narrow the curriculum and hamstring educators’ ability to differentiate instruction so as to make it culturally relevant and accessible to students of all abilities.

Once nearly nationwide standardization has been established, materials for curriculum — and testing — made by massive corporations like Pearson can be sold as one uniform commodity. As of now, it’s hard to make generalizations about what sort of pedagogy is being used in NYC’s pre-K classrooms and what long term effects it’s having.

Encouragingly, the Pre-K Foundation for the Common Core contains social and emotional development, communication and language, physical health, and other non-academic domains. Still, even quality public programs are always in jeopardy of being coopted and subverted to the goals of for-profit entities waiting in the wings to snatch hold newly allocated public dollars.

The public-private divide mentioned above within UPK also affects the pedagogy within it. Because teachers in EECs do not need to be certified in early childhood education, students in privately run classrooms are far less likely to receive quality instruction.

DOE Deputy Chancellor Wallack emphasized that all sites, public or private, are held to the same quality standards. But one crop of teachers is clearly better positioned to meet these standards than the other. It’s unclear how many teachers who aren’t required to have certifications have them regardless, though in my experience, there are often multi-classroom sites without a single certification.

So while the DOE claims all EEC teachers are held to the same standards as public, certified teachers, the DOE itself maintains two tiers when it comes to training and compensating teachers.

The DOE does provide free monthly professional development and on site coaching, but this is no replacement for a robust certification program. Wallack noted that the DOE “supports” teachers seeking this certification, but failed to give any specifics. Presumably, the support is not financial.

Critical but Unwavering Support

Given these severe limitations, how might those in favor of high-quality public education and social-democratic public investment approach the pre-K program?

First we have to recognize that while increased educational opportunities can be liberating, they can’t change the structure of capitalism and the misery it produces. Rhetoric which argues that investment in education will naturally lead to higher incomes should be rejected. It won’t.

Still, we have to fight to preserve the UPK program that already exists. A more robust social democracy than we currently have in New York or the US would provide publicly funded, high-quality, full-day childcare from birth for those families to want it. If it incorporated the reforms suggested above, UPK could be part of that program.

At the same time, we should demand reforms that make UPK more democratic and accountable to the broader population. We should advocate for far better working conditions for employees in the program, particularly those outside the public schools.

To this end, a campaign to organize the remaining unrepresented UPK employees by DC 1707 or the UFT is the most appropriate. But as of now neither body seems able or willing to execute that.

Finally, a publicly funded teacher education program for uncertified teachers and teachers aides, similar to that introduced by New York City’s Teachers Union in the 1930s and 1940s, would be transformative for hundreds if not thousands of UPK employees, as well as the pupils they teach.

More broadly, we should challenge a policy orientation that uses private facilities outside the locus of democratic control and accountability. We need truly public institutions. Whether utilizing private organizations to fill 60 percent of the UPK seats was necessary due to a real lack of space in public schools or simply chosen because it fits the business-friendly subcontracting model so many municipalities embrace, both are less than ideal outcomes and should be challenged.

In addition, we should advocate for dynamic, culturally relevant pedagogy and curriculum developed by expert educators. The dominant educational paradigm within many New York schools is a test-obsessed program of “rigor” and “high standards,” and these methods are increasingly seeping into classrooms of three- and four-year-olds.

This amounts to a narrow, static and joyless experience both for teachers and students — and, as the large-scale study in Tennessee shows, it can do more harm than good.

The alternative is an inquiry- and play-based curriculum. Nancy Carlsson-Paige, an early childhood development expert and professor emerita of education at Lesley University notes, “We have decades of research in child development and neuroscience that tell us that young children learn actively — they have to move, use their senses, get their hands on things, interact with other kids and teachers, create, invent. But in this twisted time, young children starting public pre-K at the age of 4 are expected to learn through “rigorous instruction.”

Without experienced educators who know this research and how to implement it, rote instruction is likely to continue.

Finally, when the state funding comes up for renewal in 2019, we should reignite the demand that this program and social democratic ones like it be paid for by a tax on the wealthy.

While the ultimate funding of the program should be celebrated, there is a limit as to what can be provided within New York’s regressive tax structure. Universal childcare and, as Bernie Sanders has popularized lately, higher education will only be possible through a restructuring of our tax system in which those who earn more, pay more.

In order to accomplish this we’ll need a much larger movement than exists within the locus of UPK. As the Sanders campaign has made clear, there is a constituency eager for this sort of movement politics. Bill de Blasio understood this — it’s how he won New York’s mayoral race. Teachers and New York City public sector unions shouldn’t squander that political opening. We have to defend and improve universal prekindergarten education.