Bill de Blasio

UPK was a big success. 3K for All won't be so easy.

De Blasio’s universal pre-K program has been his biggest success. Expanding it to 3-year-olds won’t be so easy.

Bill de Blasio prekindergarten

Bill de Blasio prekindergarten Rob Bennett/Mayoral Photography Office

Four years after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would provide prekindergarten for every 4-year-old in the city and then overcame skepticism to deliver his most popular policy to date, the mayor announced his intention last year to provide similar services for 3-year-olds citywide. He gave himself four years to implement it. The question is, can he catch lightning in a bottle again?

De Blasio has said the rollout could be more difficult than the universal prekindergarten rollout for 4-year-olds. For one, the initial effort got a head start from existing infrastructure that isn’t quite present for the mayor’s 3-K for All initiative, according to Pamela Morris, the vice dean for research and faculty affairs at the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development and an adviser to the de Blasio administration in its pre-K and 3-K efforts.

“With pre-K, they had the opportunity to build on an already well-developed network of child care providers, community-based resources and pre-K programs that existed throughout the city,” she said. “Obviously, 3-year-old care did exist in the city, but there’s less to build on there.”

New York City also doesn’t have lots to look at for inspiration or practical tips. “There’s very few other cities that have tried to take on 3-K. For the most part, when we look across the country at cities and states talking about expansions of pre-K, they’re look at expansions for 4-year-olds,” Morris said. Cities like Washington, D.C., which offers pre-K to 3-year-olds, operate on a much smaller scale, leaving New York City to devise its planning and professional development almost from scratch.

That said, Morris is optimistic about the program’s development, in part due to its more drawn-out expansion, which she deemed “wise.”

The sentiment was echoed by Shael Polakow-Suransky, the president of the Bank Street College of Education and a former chief academic officer and senior deputy chancellor at the New York City Department of Education. “They’re going to have an easier time with this rollout because it’s happening more slowly,” he said. “With pre-K, they were trying to do the whole city over a two-year period. With 3-K they’re doing a bit less than half of the city in four years.”

The initial pre-K expansion took up a lot of space, sometimes in schools where there wasn’t much of it; there were cases of students being wait-listed and even sent to other districts due to lack of space. Of the two districts that have incorporated 3-K so far, neither has a particularly notable history of overcrowding, but the 2018-19 school year will expand the program to denser districts, including School District 27, which encompasses Broad Channel, Howard Beach, Ozone Park, and Far Rockaway in Queens.

It’s also not quite as simple as finding the toddlers a room anywhere in the school building, especially one with students of a variety of ages. On a recent visit to P.S./I.S. 323 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which is in School District 23, Principal Linda Harris explained that “the complication comes from having 3-year-olds in a building with 13-year-olds and 14-year-olds.” At their early stage of brain development, the children require a structured, moderated school experience, something not entirely compatible with a building full of teenagers. The school has solved the problem by having the little ones on the ground floor while older kids occupy the space above. The school’s single class of 15 3-year-olds, who started in September, even have their own bathrooms.

Not every school is in a position to implement that solution, of course. P.S./I.S. 323 also didn’t have to worry about recruiting a new teacher for its program. Harris asked pre-K teacher Carline Bruni to switch over to the new program. As she and her assistant teacher kept an eye on the students, who were busying themselves coloring in a large drawing and playing with animal figures, Bruni explained that she spoke to the children in both English and French, and had some latitude to adapt the curriculum, displaying the teacher preparation that some experts believe was essential to universal pre-K’s rapid expansion.

“One of the things that the DOE did, that’s different to other cities and states with a pre-K program, is they spent a lot of time and money on professional development,” Polakow-Suransky said. Both he and Morris are optimistic about the DOE’s ability to increase teacher headcount at the pace necessary to meet the 3-K goals. A spokesperson for the United Federation of Teachers, which represents most of the city’s teachers, said that the union was “pretty much in alignment with the DOE on 3-K.”

This is all only possible if the city has the money to pay its teachers. One of the most obvious challenges is funding the initiative; the city has ponied up $16.5 million to implement the program in two school districts for the 2017-18 school year – School District 7 in the Bronx, and School District 23 in Brooklyn – but won’t be able to cover the full estimated $1 billion price tag to roll out the program citywide.

For $700 million of it, the mayor needs state and federal funding at a time when Washington is both stepping away from public education funding and blowing holes in municipal coffers through new federal tax law, as was detailed in testimony before the New York City Council’s Finance Committee by Department of Finance First Deputy Commissioner Michael Hyman and others. As for Albany, state funding for pre-K arrived only after the mayor and Gov. Andrew Cuomo butted heads over de Blasio’s plan to establish a new tax on millionaires to pay for the proposal.

This time around, the powers that be in Albany – including state legislators and the governor – are not convinced that they should be bankrolling the city’s pre-K expansion when much of the state has no universal pre-K system A spokesperson for the governor’s office said in an email that the administration had “proposed a $15 million increase in pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds across the state, including NYC,” but did not directly address the administration’s considerations of a specific budget item for the 3-K for All plan.

A wild card in the program’s development is a pending leadership change. Carmen Fariña is on her way out as the city schools chancellor and she will be replaced by Houston Independent School District Superintendent Richard Carranza. Houston has had a version of free public pre-K for eligible 4-year-olds – like those who have been homeless or economically disadvantaged – since 2005. The Houston school district did not return a request for comment on the extent of Carranza’s involvement with that program during his roughly 18-month tenure.

Before going to Houston, Carranza spent the previous four years heading the San Francisco school system. A spokesperson for the San Francisco Unified School District said that the system had various tiers of pre-K, some free and some tuition-based on a sliding scale, and was geared to children as young as just under 3 years old. She said that Carranza’s most direct impact on the program was supporting then-Early Education Department Chief Carla Bryant in an expansive reimagination of public education to personalize it and integrate technology and diversity into the classroom.