Education

Pre-K For Three-Year-Olds Is Coming To NYC — If Someone Steps Up To Pay For It

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On the heels of what was perhaps the fastest rollout of free, universal prekindergarten in the country, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city’s newest investment in early childhood education yesterday: free prekindergarten for all three-year-olds regardless of family income by 2021.

The project, dubbed “3-K for All,” will begin by expanding prekindergarten seats in the mayor’s existing universal program for four-year-olds to younger children in historically neglected neighborhoods — District 7 in the Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville — over the next two years. By the fall of 2018, the city hopes to reach 1,800 children in these districts — triple the amount of children in early care programs in those areas today. Research says that every dollar invested in high-quality early education saves taxpayers as much as $13 in the long term, according to a City Hall release on the program. The initial expansion in the Bronx and Brooklyn will cost the city $16 million.

“This extra year of education will provide our children with a level of academic and social development that they cannot get later on, while at the same time, alleviating some of the strain New York City’s working families face today,” Mayor de Blasio said in the same release. The city has committed to funding the program in eight districts by 2020 and hopes to secure additional funding to make the program universal by 2021. Once fully rolled out, the program is expected to serve 62,000 students in 3-K, an effort that will cost over $1 billion — an admittedly early estimate, according to the mayor.

Perhaps the mayor’s most successful citywide initiative yet, free, universal prekindergarten for four-year-olds went from ambitious campaign promise to reality in under two years — a massive feat. Through the universal prekindergarten program, more than 70,000 four-year-olds in about 1,800 public schools and community centers now have access to early education — learning that education research has long proven crucial in helping to level academic achievement gaps between wealthy and low-income children. The city hired and trained thousands of teachers to fill the new classrooms and, in the program’s second year, found evidence that widespread access to prekindergarten didn’t mean that programs would be low-quality.

Still, there is significant evidence that the program, like much of the city’s public elementary, middle, and high schools, is highly racially segregated. Researchers say the program could benefit from a more explicit dedication to racial integration, a stance the city continues to duck in favor of parent choice.

It comes as no surprise that the mayor would pick another popular, major education goal in an election year, particularly as his other re-election promises have been criticized, including the dubious Brooklyn-Queens streetcar; an all but abandonment of the city’s growing homelessness problem, which includes 33,000 school-aged children; and the closure of Rikers Island jail, a popular notion for sure, but one that has been met with skepticism (the mayor has refused to say whether construction of a new jail on Rikers Island will be allowed to continue and put the timeline for the current facility’s closure within a decade — beyond his term of office).

While the expansion of prekindergarten to three-year-olds is definitely a good thing, it will not come cheap. The city will need to train and hire 4,500 teachers and find classroom space for thousands of children. Making the program universal will depend upon the state and federal government getting on board with de Blasio’s vision —to the tune of $700 million. And while Governor Andrew Cuomo and President Donald Trump are certainly not friends, they share a common distrust of the mayor. The city says it will spend a total of $177 million per year on the program, and the Administration for Children’s Services already contributes $200 million yearly to the existing EarlyLearn NYC program, which serves about 10,000 three-year-olds. The rest will be up to the state and the federal government, neither of which have inspired much faith as of late.

Read more about the mayor’s proposal here.

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