Dana Goldstein writes here about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign to establish a universal program of free, public pre-kindergarten, equally available to the poor, the middle-class, and the rich.
In Dana’s cover note, she wrote:
“The story is also about something much bigger—the nature of government in America. Should public services be universal, meaning even affluent people can access them, regardless of whether they could procure pre-K, college, or health care on the private market? Or should we give “free stuff” only to the poor and working class?
“This was pretty much the exact debate Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton had during the Democratic primary. De Blasio, despite being a Clinton supporter, is firmly on the side of universality. Pre-K For All subsidizes the children of bankers and the children of parents living in homeless shelters. Does its play-based pedagogy work to remedy what the mayor famously decried as “the tale of two cities”—one rich and one poor? And can debates over early childhood education ever break out of gendered thinking, in which we believe only mothers can effectively care for their own children?”
In the article, she writes:
“In 2016 there is one central debate, between the left and center-left, about the role of government in America. Can the widening gap in opportunity and life outcomes between the rich and the poor be closed using the dominant policy tools of the last 30 years: tax credits that are supposed to encourage minimum-wage work, and stigmatized, underfunded social programs that serve only the poorest of the poor, like Medicaid, food stamps, and Head Start, the federal preschool program? Or, does the country need to return to an older, and until very recently, largely unpopular idea: taxing the rich to create big, new government entitlements, like pre-k, free college, or single-payer health care—entitlements available to everyone, including the affluent who currently have little trouble procuring such services on the private market?
“This was the crux of the debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. The signature Sanders policy proposal was a plan to make public college free for all. Even for the children of Donald Trump, as Clinton pointed out in one primary debate. Clinton became the Democratic Party standard-bearer, and after negotiations with Sanders, announced her own plan to make in-state public college free, but only for families earning under $125,000 per year.
“De Blasio’s Pre-K For All program is, notably, in the Sanders style: unabashedly free-for-all.
There are few places in the United States to look for big, new experiments in universal government entitlements. One of them is New York City under de Blasio. The mayor issued a late-in-the-game primary endorsement of Clinton—he was the manager of her 2000 Senate campaign—but his Pre-K For All program is, notably, in the Sanders style: unabashedly free-for-all. Some American social programs, like Medicare and Social Security, serve everyone, and have proven to be relatively popular and politically sacrosanct. Others, like Medicaid, Head Start, food stamps, and cash welfare, are available only to the destitute, and are under constant threat of budget cuts. Pre-K For All is for the poor, the rich, and everyone in between. The mayor would rather speak about the program’s educational quality than its political strategy, but if prodded, will concede, “anything that has a broad constituency will also have more sustainability.” Simply put, it is difficult for politicians to retract a benefit that the politically powerful upper-middle class enjoys.
De Blasio’s first elected office was as a school-board member in District 15, the swath of brownstone Brooklyn that includes Park Slope, where he and his wife, Chirlane McCray, lived. They sent their daughter and son to public school. His focus on pre-k reflects a longtime skepticism of some of the other education-reform enthusiasms of the last two decades, like standardized testing and charter schools. When the state of New York granted de Blasio’s predecessor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg, control of the city’s schools, Bloomberg abolished neighborhood school boards like the one on which de Blasio served. Bloomberg’s education agenda was based around the concepts of choice and competition. He opened new charter schools and gave all schools letter grades based largely on their students’ test scores. Bloomberg also created 4,000 new pre-k seats, but they were open only to the poorest children. That strategy has been the norm. In recent years, cities like Denver and San Antonio reserved new public pre-k seats for the neediest kids. Even Boston’s public pre-k program, considered a national model, does not guarantee every 4-year-old a seat.
“De Blasio wants all children, even the children of the financially secure, to benefit from public services. He speaks often about how difficult it is to afford rent, child care, and other basic necessities of life in New York City, not just for the impoverished, but also for the middle and upper-middle class. “A hedge-fund manager, maybe they’re not struggling, but the vast majority of people [are],” de Blasio told me. “The cost of living in this town has continued to go up and up, so I can’t tell you how many middle-class parents have told me what it meant to save $10,000 or $15,000” on pre-K, “how fundamental that was for their ability to live in the city.”
“In 2012, when de Blasio was serving as New York City’s public advocate, a sort of city ombudsman, his office produced a report showing a huge unmet demand for free pre-k. Only half of New York City 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in pre-k, either public or private. Every neighborhood had more young children than public-school pre-k spots, but in areas such as affluent brownstone Brooklyn, middle-class Bay Ridge, and immigrant-heavy Central Queens, there were as many as eight applicants per seat. The problem was a national one: Only 41 percent of American 4-year-olds, and 16 percent of 3-year-olds, are being served by publicly funded pre-k, according to the latest data.
“To expand access, de Blasio proposed a tax increase of less than 1 percent on income over $500,000. That idea became the centerpiece of his 2013 mayoral bid, a key to remedying what he decried as “the tale of two cities”: huge opportunity gaps between the super rich and everybody else. A New Yorker earning $600,000 annually would have paid an additional $530 in taxes to fund universal pre-k. This provoked outrage from the Partnership for New York City, a network of CEOs. The group’s president said the tax proposal showed a “lack of sensitivity to the city’s biggest revenue providers and job creators.”
“Many of de Blasio’s fellow progressives were skeptical such a big idea could ever become reality. Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, called de Blasio’s universal pre-k plan “non-serious,” and New York City’s teachers’ union endorsed another mayoral candidate in the Democratic primary. But regular New Yorkers liked de Blasio’s ambition. Private pre-k costs, on average, over $12,000 per year in New York City, and up to $40,000 for an elite program. (The city’s median household income is about $51,000.) Polls suggested that, along with his promise to end stop-and-frisk and his artful, optimistic embrace of his family’s biracial identity, the promise of free pre-k was why voters preferred de Blasio to his rivals. He won the election and immediately began lobbying Albany to make the idea a reality; the mayor would need the support of the state legislature to enact his pre-k funding scheme. Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democratic tax-cutter, did not want de Blasio’s tax proposal to come to a vote. Still, the mayor’s boldness had changed the terms of the debate. Cuomo, somewhat mysteriously, reached into the state budget and found $340 million per year to fund the program for five years.
“From there, the de Blasio administration managed to launch Pre-K For All in less than six months. By the program’s second school year, 2015-16, it had reached its original enrollment target. Pre-K For All serves 68 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds, and 85 percent of those who are likely to enroll in public-school kindergarten. In the city of Washington, D.C., 86 percent of all 4-year-olds and 64 percent of all 3-year-olds, are enrolled in public pre-k, outpacing New York onpercentage of children served. But D.C. first launched its universal pre-k program in 2008 and allowed six years for full implementation. In comparison, New York City has moved at remarkable speed, while serving more than five times as many students.”
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