Politics

Opinion: The limits of de Blasio’s universal pre-K program

Circle time at preschool offers the perfect forum for moral lessons, such as basic civility.

So, when little Lela’s humbled voice peeped from the back of the classroom at Castle Bridge Elementary School in Washington Heights, “I’m ready to come back,” teacher Katie Wassel figured the lesson on good manners had been duly noted: You can’t elbow your neighbor during circle time.

Shifting her gaze to another child, Wassel attempted to recapture the youthful exuberance. “What does the author mean by ‘gigante’? Little Anthony waved his hand to answer, pressed tightly into this restless semi-circle of 4-year-olds.

With equal verve, Mayor Bill de Blasio aims to draw a giant, inclusive civic circle all his own. He’s warmly embracing middle-class families with the gift of free preschool, as I saw at Castle Bridge, where Dominican families warmly blend with Upper West Side professionals.

The mayor hopes to illustrate on this small policy canvas how broad social entitlements can lift children, backstop families and make his daunting metropolis feel more affordable. But de Blasio has stumbled down a rocky road in carving out some 65,000 pre-K seats for 4-year-olds. The mayor belatedly discovered that public schools lacked the space; Jewish leaders insisted on time for religious instruction; middle-class neighborhoods eagerly outbid their less fortunate peers.

The mayor’s noble, yet clumsy, initiative offers clear lessons for would-be progressives who claim magical benefits for all from cookie-cutter entitlements.

Lesson 1: Stick close to the evidence on which families or clients will reap the rewards. The mayor has pursued two policy goals at once – claiming to narrow severe disparities in children’s early learning and elevating poor youngsters, while also relieving pressure on household budgets, including better-off families that already enjoyed a richer pre-K supply.

A half-century of research shows strong and persisting benefits for poor children that attend high-quality preschool. Comparable gains appear in two local studies, done in Boston and Tulsa, for children of blue-collar parents or first-generation English speakers. But large national studies – tracking tens of thousands of preschoolers – find tepid and fading benefits among children of middle-class families, probably due to the richness of language in these households along with parenting that encourage their children’s ideas, feelings and problem-solving.

But de Blasio insisted in September that “the jury is back on pre-K … the fact that it’s universal, I believe, lifts all boats.” On this point, the mayor either echoes bad advice or is simply ignoring the research. Because if the city’s quality preschools do raise the early growth of allchildren equally, and not specifically the poor, how would that narrow distressingly wide gaps in children’s early growth? We have made great strides in lifting average test scores in K-12 education over the past 40 years, but painfully little progress in narrowing achievement gaps among racial or social class groups.

Lesson 2: Anticipate stronger demand for entitlements from better-off families and stronger interest groups. The overall supply of preschool seats was about one-third greater in better-off parts of the city, relative to poor neighborhoods, as de Blasio leapt into the field. His expansion of pre-K seats has spurred even greater demand from middle class and blue-collar families, eager to save thousands of dollars by shifting their 4-year-old to a free pre-K program.

Yet enrollments inched up by just 1 percent in September in the poorest one-fifth of CIP codes relative to last school year, according to my research team’s analysis of city data (which remain publicly unavailable). Over 12,000 4-year-olds residing in the two-fifths of city neighborhoods with the lowest household incomes remain outside any public pre-K program.

Unbridled entitlements are often co-opted by better-off players. Think farm subsidies: at first a well-meaning effort to hedge against the risk of fickle agricultural prices, especially perilous for small family farms. But Washington still spends billions on price supports that subsidize huge corporate growers.

President Barack Obama’s health care reform offers another strategy, attaching a national entitlement to medical insurance, while avoiding taxpayer subsidies for citizens or corporations that can afford to pay. Washington and state exchanges then aim public dollars toward individuals or families that cannot afford market prices. Obama has similarly pushed to expand pre-K seats in poor communities, while raising tax credits for truly middle-class families to ease their child care costs.

Lesson 3: Learn about the organizational landscape. At first, de Blasio’s planners assumed he could create 72,000 pre-K seats within the public school system. This brought smiles to the faces of labor leaders, forecasting thousands of new teaching jobs and union members. But the mayor’s deputies seemed unaware that some 1,900 community organizations – YWCAs, Head Start, religious institutions – have long run most city preschools, going back to the likes of Dorothy Day a century ago.

The mayor, however, has proven to be a quick learner. He allowed Jewish preschools to shoehorn spiritual instruction into a secular curriculum, approved bilingual pre-K programs and even allowed charter schools to play ball. Richard Buery, the deputy mayor for strategic initiatives, acknowledged that there are 103,000 4-year-olds in the city, not 72,000, the figure that was to signal the arrival of “universal” access to pre-K.

The city’s rainbow of preschool providers means an equally colorful range of ways to teach and socialize its young charges. This fragmentation challenges de Blasio’s affection for standardized regulation of classrooms. When asked recently how he would define a “quality” preschool program, de Blasio said, “We’re working with a Common Core curriculum … a carefully calibrated curriculum to prepare them to be on target for their next experience up ahead in kindergarten.”

But Common Core lesson plans don’t extend down to toddlers and preschoolers. That’s a good thing, according to many child psychologists, who find that young children learn best by engaging with a range of tasks, expressive play, and each other – rather than sitting at desks reciting phonemes.

Ignoring the existing landscape, the city’s sudden spike in pre-K seats, now free in the public schools, has pulled between 10,300 and 14,900 children from neighborhood centers that failed to win public funding and must still charge fees, according to our survey of pre-K directors. Policy analysts call this a “substitution effect,” where expanding one slice of a sector simply pulls clients from another, rather than actually widening access to additional families.

Some culling of mediocre programs may be wise. The mayor’s initiative now incrementally boosts the salaries of pre-K teachers, likely drawing in young graduates with stronger training. But the disabling of high-quality preschools in poor communities may explain the near-zero growth in seats seen in September across the poorest neighborhoods.

De Blasio’s well-intentioned initiative reflects a deeper dilemma for Democrats going forward. Party leaders promise to lift the poor and buttress America’s anxious middle class. Hewing to that philosophy, self-described progressives like de Blasio push for universal entitlements, from free preschool to priceless community college for all. But do such policy strategies actually lift the relative status and long-term fortunes of the poor? Or, does government simply assume the costs of social institutions to which better-off parents are no longer asked to contribute, even as the distribution of supply benefits them most?

The alternative strategy is to progressively tax affluent individuals and corporations, redirecting aid to families who can’t afford to pay for quality pre-K or enter an Ivy League college. This remains Washington’s preference as it expands Head Start and Pell Grants.

Now, de Blasio has upped the ante, betting that imprecise entitlements will build a bigger tent, drawing that gigante civic circle. His embrace of middle-class voters – who worry about their mortgage or how to save for college – feels honest and essential. Cities wither when young families flee, worried sick over affordability, mediocre schools and lousy public transportation.

But unless public initiatives award the poor and working-class families even a shallow stake in civil society, the city’s vitality will suffer as well. The mayor might admit that he’s really not keen on narrowing stark gaps in children’s early learning. Or, going forward, he might center his efforts on this singular goal, to demonstrate that he is truly dedicated to a more inclusive society.

Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, is author of “Organizing Locally: How the New Decentralists Improve Education, Health Care, and Trade” (Chicago, 2015).

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