Mayor Bill de Blasio with preschool children (Photo: Courtesy of NYC.gov)

For NYC Kids, First Day of School Comes One Year Earlier

Universal pre-k, the hallmark of Mayor Bill de Blasio's election campaign, starts today.
Sep 4, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Hugh Ryan's work has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, The Guardian, and The Daily Beast.

Today 50,000 children began attending free preschool in New York City. That’s more kids than are in Seattle’s entire K-12 public school system.

One of them is Helen Poventud’s daughter, Christina. In a tiny orange shirt featuring a drawing of happy school kids, she made a beeline for Rena Early Learn Child Care in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood early this morning. It was important that she be on time, her mom said, so that shecould get to her job as a home health aid.

“I work five to six hours in the morning,” Poventud said, now that she has a free, safe place that will care for Christina.

Universal pre-k—and a tax on the wealthy to pay for it—was a centerpiece of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s election campaign last year, and is his administration’s most ambitious and highly- anticipated initiative to date.

While some preschool programs are situated in city schools, most of the new or expanded pre-k sites are located in day-care centers like Rena, which has been around since the early seventies.

“We’re full already and we just started,” said a Rena employee known as Mrs. Valenzuela, as she wrangled a few stragglers just before the preschool program’s start time of 9:00am.

Despite some tussling between the Mayor and Governor Andrew Cuomo over how to fund the program, universal state-funded pre-k has nearly universal support in New York City. In March, a Quinnipiac poll found that more than 85 percent of voters favored the idea, and new pre-k locations were still being opened at the end of August.

Studies on the effects of pre-k have shown short-term gains in standardized test scores, but long-term life improvements. Few studies have followed students for very long after preschool, making it hard to assess the effects’ staying power. One research project that did was the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which found that once they grew up, low-income students randomly placed in a pre-k program “had higher earnings, were more likely to hold a job, had committed fewer crimes, and were more likely to have graduated from high school than adults who did not have preschool.”

Of course, not all pre-k programs are created equal. Quality—as measured by teacher preparedness, student-teacher ratio, family and community involvement, and funding—matters more than just the fact of its existence—at least in terms of how much benefit pupils may derive.

More and more research is showing the long-term health and other effects that result from how well the early brain develops, and that the earlier in life any gaps are addressed, the easier and cheaper they are to fix.

Moreover, the new venture will be a financial boon to New York City’s families. Nearly every parent dropping off their kid at Rena Day Care this morning said the same thing: universal pre-k is welcome because it enables them to go to work.

National child care was passed by Congress in 1971, but Pres. Richard Nixon vetoed the legislation. Today, nith day care swallowing as much as 30 percent of income in even two-income families, according to research out of the University of Wisconsin, many families find it’s not worth the cost. Even high earners in New York are strained by the expense.

As much as it may have pained her to say good-bye to Christina this morning, Poventud said, having a no-cost option for quality care for the first time “makes a big difference.”