Universal prekindergarten is a hot topic these days, stirring up big emotions. Do we target scarce resources to those children most in need? For about a year, I was stalked on Twitter by a woman who fiercely believes that’s the way to go. Anytime I mentioned the words “universal,” or “preschool for all,” she was there, haranguing me for my wrong-headed response. This was often, as you might imagine.
Or do we make preschool available to all? Many argue that the only way to ensure sustainability is to get buy-in from middle class parents. This policy debate has been long-standing, and vociferous. But ever since Oklahoma began offering free, voluntary access to preschool programs for all 4-year-olds in 1998, we’ve been trying to find the answer.
Now all eyes are on New York City, and the panic is palpable. What happens if we fail? We need a big win with impeccable implementation and outcomes, the naysayers warn. We’re putting the whole enterprise of early childhood education at risk.
But where’s the long view?
Education and social reform efforts play out differently over time and space, their trajectories singular, and outcomes indeterminate. All politics, as the saying goes, is local.
Bill de Blasio’s prekindergarten initiative is a bold experiment, the star element of a strategy to combat inequality. Not surprisingly, he’s on the hot seat. Critics say there’s no method to his madness; they predict a train wreck, the result of a rapid scale-up—a sacrifice of quality for access. An emergent early childhood workforce must be educated and certified. Real estate is at a premium, leaving little space for the system’s four-year-olds, many of whom are educated in community-based organizations in the most segregated school district in the country. It’s a “big lift,” in the words of Richard Buery, deputy mayor of strategic policy initiatives, one in which “there will be lots of things we won’t have solved.”
But those waiting for derailment ignore the state’s history and context. They also leave out New York City’s parents, including those in the middle class, whose budgets are strained by preschool fees on par with college tuition. Universal early education has languished on a starvation diet since 1997, when Republican Governor George Pataki enacted legislation. De Blasio has tapped into a vein of need and dissatisfaction, seizing the moment. Whether his method is replicable is anyone’s guess; it may well be beside the point. He is exporting a model of government as a force for change in a time of political sclerosis, confirming early childhood education as a public good.
A version of my answer to the question posed in this blog’s title was published in The Weekly Wonk, a digital magazine and podcast at the New America Foundation. For my response, and those from other “wonks,” you can check in right here.
P.S. I would love to hear what you all think about the universal vs. targeted question, and how de Blasio’s initiative and other pre-K efforts across the country are playing out on the ground. Let me know!