Behind the rise of Bill de Blasio in the race for New York City Mayor is his proposal to raise taxes (mainly on the rich) to pay for universal pre-K throughout the city. More schools for toddlers is always a winning campaign promise and, as de Blasio is right to assert, states and cities need to do better at preparing their youngest and most at-risk children to succeed in school. Pre-K today in New York, as in most places, is a fragmented potpourri of private and public programs—some very good, others not so much. For every Abbott Preschool Program, there is a Head Start center that does little to help children once they matriculate into elementary school. (I was once a student teacher at a Head Start site in New Orleans and saw both sides of the coin.)

Bill de Blasio photo from Wikipedia

If the goal of de Blasio is to close the achievement gap, stymieing the gap in a child’s formative years is much more rational strategy than waiting to combat the gap once it exists. For this reason, pre-K programs offer a great return on investment—if structured around improving cognitive functions, supplying essential knowledge and skills, and targeting the youngsters who are least likely to acquire those things at home. But that’s not exactly what de Blasio is proposing.

De Blasio proposes expanding access in the city by adding 48,000 slots for children via $340 million in additional revenue through his tax increase. Unfortunately, there exists little to no proof that there is either a demand for these placements or enough quality pre-K programs already in existence to handle these new students. And by proposing a universal program, which spreads the money across more students, he is shorting those who need it the most. In a nutshell, such a program won’t close the achievement gap—it will preserve it.

In making his argument for pre-K expansion in NYC, de Blasio notes, “By 2020, China will enroll 70 percent of children in three years of preschool,” while lamenting how in the five boroughs of his own city, “tens of thousands of children do not receive any pre-K education.” Yet existing pre-K seats are already going unfilled. According to the New York Times, “Last year, for example, about 500 full-day and 3,300 part-day prekindergarten spots were unclaimed.” Adding 48,000 quickly would add to the empty-seat supply. Instead, we ought to engage in a better-organized effort to engage and then assist parents in utilizing the options already available to them and educate them about other private options they could possibly afford. If higher enrollment rates follow, there would likely emerge a case for program expansion.

But effective pre-K programs are the only kind worth expanding because they’re the only kind that help kids. And that’s not the only kind we find today in New York—and most other places. If de Blasio is serious about helping the kids who need it to prepare for school, and not just grandstanding for election purposes, he needs to be a lot clearer than he’s been to date on quality control. If the city is going to spend $340 million more on preschool, taxpayers and parents deserve to know that this money is being spent to strengthen school readiness, not on daycare masquerading as pre-K.

A better solution than the universal program De Blasio is offering up is a targeted expansion of quality pre-K. Of parents in the lowest-income quartile, 30 percent take no advantage of “non-regular nonparent care.” If we are really interested in closing the achievement gap, that proportion is simply too high. While these children are in need of quality pre-K programs, Bill de Blasio and Wall Street titans are certainly not in need of subsidized pre-K programs for their own children. (They’re the talk of the town and doing quite well without it.) Instead of making pre-K universal and available to the already well-off, provide programs focused on early literacy, vocabulary, and other necessary skills that begin earlier, provide support to parents, and are—most importantly—available to those most in need. This is not only a more effective policy but also a more progressive one, to boot. If NYC policymakers like De Blasio are looking for a model to replicate, take the 4 train from City Hall and get off at 125th street. There you’ll find a baby college, three-year-old classes, and a pre-K program worth putting money in to.

The de Blasio plan is backwards. His heart may be in the right place, but his plan is off the mark. Closing the achievement gap means focusing on those for whom the gap hurts. Instead of swelling the number of seats in pre-K programs and then working on quality, we should focus on improving the quality and enrollment of the most at-risk in existing programs. Making high-quality pre-K accessible is a laudable goal, but before you throw $340 million at the problem, put the emphasis on quality and making a difference for those who need it. 

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