On Tuesday, February 11th, I joined over 200 of my clergy colleagues at Bethany Baptist Church in Bedford-Stuyvesant for an interfaith breakfast in support of universal prekindergarten and after-school programs. Both Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife Chirlane McCray spoke from personal experience about the value of these programs (no doubt embarrassing their children). My children, who attended public schools, also benefitted. Every child should have the same access as our children had to high-quality education at a young age.
“Make no mistake,” said Ms. McCray. “This is the defining civil rights issue of our day.” Research consistently shows that full-day pre-K reduces income inequality and increases social mobility, effectively leveling the playing field between low-income and high-income children. A National Bureau of Economic Research study released in May 2013 found that pre-K can reduce the achievement gap by up to 40 percent. Closing this gap is especially important in New York City, where 30 percent of our children live in poverty. (In certain neighborhoods, the child poverty rate exceeds 60 percent!) Across the country, lawmakers and educators agree that investments in pre-K have among the highest payoffs of any government policy: ensuring future success for children on measures from brain development to high school graduation rates and avoiding costly incarceration, special education, teen pregnancy and future low earnings.
So if the mayor is standing on solid pedagogical ground and making a mainstream argument, what’s the problem? Funding. His plan calls for $340 million in pre-K funding this year – reaching 68,000 of the 100,000 four-year-olds in New York City – while Albany’s plan proposes just $100 million in pre-K spending for the entire state. How can this disparity be resolved? Mayor de Blasio has proposed a stable funding source: a half-percentage-point income tax increase for New Yorkers making $500,000 and above, what he calls “a negligible sacrifice for a transformative social good.” Alas, Governor Andrew Cuomo has made it clear that he’s not interested in raising taxes in an election year, even though the study mentioned above showed little to no evidence of “tax flight” by the wealthy. The city cannot impose a tax hike without Albany’s permission, and, as I write this, state Senate Republican from Nassau County Dean Skelos would not bring the city’s proposal to the floor for a vote.
So is this a stalemate? Are there other sources of funding that would not require this tax increase? Sadly, New York State has already tried that and failed.
In 1997, ours was one of the first states to pass legislation calling for universal pre-K. Financing started in 1998 with the goal of serving all four-year-olds in all districts within five years. But by 2002, only 24 percent of eligible children were enrolled. When the economy tanked, the state failed to follow through on its funding commitment, and school districts couldn’t take the risk of implementing universal pre-K without a dedicated funding source. Almost all state funding was also limited to only two-and-a-half hours of school.
Hence, we have New York City’s proposal, supported by a majority of state residents, for a stable funding source that will eliminate yearly appropriations battles with uncertain results that discourage full commitment from teachers and staff. No more excuses, no more delays; it’s time to do the right thing by our children and the future of our communities. As the mayor said at the breakfast, “People of this city demanded something for our children and we’re told we don’t even get a vote in Albany, as if our children don’t matter.” It is no surprise that we chanted “We want a vote!” and signed letters of support provided by UPKNYC (universal pre-K New York City), a grassroots campaign formed by parents, educators, clergy and business leaders to send the message to Albany that we want and need our city’s plan enacted. Every child deserves a chance at success.
Please join me in this effort. Visit www.upknyc.org for more information and spread the word. A lobbying day in Albany is planned for Tuesday, March 4. Details will be available on NYSEC’s website and email communications. This an ethical issue that demands our support.