Pre-K Programs: Quality, Not Quantity

(Wikimedia Commons)

(Wikimedia Commons)

Bill de Blasio and Joe Lhota may not agree on much, but, when it comes to universal prekindergarten programs, they’re absolutely in synch. They both say the city ought to provide access to such programs.

Mr. de Blasio has made his call for universal pre-K the centerpiece of his campaign. Mr. Lhota has found time to discuss other matters, but he, too, is committed to this mom-and-apple-pie issue. The two candidates disagree on how to pay for this expensive venture, estimated to cost at least $500 million per year. In keeping with his worldview, Mr. de Blasio wants to raise taxes on the rich. Mr. Lhota believes that the city could fund universal pre-K by eliminating wasteful spending elsewhere.

The two candidates and the media accept without question the essential worthiness of universal pre-K. “It’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Lhota said. The underlying assumption seems to be that parents are clamoring for access to pre-K programs but are being denied the opportunity by Dickensian bean counters.

The Observer, however, has turned up some numbers that tell a very different, very surprising story.

According to our research, slots in pre-K programs citywide are currently going unfilled. In other words, there is an oversupply of seats in pre-K classrooms even as both mayoral candidates talk about expanding access.

During the 2012-13 school year, the city provided full-day pre-K seats for about 16,000 children in public schools and in community-based organizations that contract with the Department of Education. The school agency provided about 40,000 half-day seats. But 15,000 of those 40,000 seats were administered by contractors through the Administration for Children’s Services. Those contractors combined Department of Education funds with other funding to provide full-day service for children of income-eligible parents.

The mayoral candidates would argue that this is not nearly enough. But The Observer analysis shows that about 500 full-day seats and 3,300 half-day seats in pre-K programs went unfilled.

Unfilled seats do not necessarily suggest that there isn’t enough demand for pre-K programs. It’s possible that some parents simply don’t know about the availability of the programs. But the numbers do show that the city is meeting the current demand for pre-K seats, without a massive new spending program.

Mr. de Blasio’s plan would create 10,000 new seats in all-day programs and would convert half-day programs to full-day. To pay for this expansion, he would raise the city’s top income tax rate from 3.9 percent to 4.3 percent on families making more than $500,000 per year.

Putting aside the tax issue, it’s important to note that the issue is more complicated than simply spending money. The city has to create awareness—in essence, it has to create greater demand for seats and perform greater outreach in high-need neighborhoods before it can move ahead with either the de Blasio or Lhota plan.

Equally important, it is absolutely essential to deliver top-notch pre-K programs. It’s not merely a question of accessibility. It’s a question of quality as well. In order to give young children the advantages of pre-K programs, classrooms have to be learning environments. In other words, pre-K can’t be a very expensive child-care service.

It’s not entirely clear how the city would ensure that expanded pre-K programs deliver structured, stimulating activities. But without oversight, there is no assurance that contractors will be anything more than baby sitters.

None of this is to deny that pre-K programs are important and that they can provide children, especially those from challenged backgrounds, with a good foundation for kindergarten and beyond.

But before the city embarks on a massive expansion of its already formidable pre-K program—and it is worth noting that the city added 4,000 full-day seats for the 2013-14 academic year—hard questions need to be asked.

The core issue, based on The Observer’s analysis of current pre-K demand, is not accessibility. It would not appear that parents are being turned away for lack of slots.

The issue is quality. How can the city ensure that pre-K students are getting the best possible head start in life?

Asking such a question may sound cruel. After all, who would demand accountability from something as warm and fuzzy as a pre-K classroom?

Well, a mayor needs to ask those kinds of questions, especially when he is on the verge of spending $500 million per year. The conversation about pre-K ought to be centered not on accessibility, but on quality.

It’s a harder conversation, all right. But it’s clearly necessary.