DMI Blog

Elana Levin

Universal Pre-K In Our Time

Think a proven to work progressive public policy like universal access to high quality preschool education is just a pipe dream for New York? At this morning's Marketplace of Ideas panel New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn said she's so certain of the public's force of will on this issue that expanded pre-k access will be a reality before the 2009 Mayoral Elections.

In case you missed DMI's panel on Promoting Access to Pre-School Education with retired Oklahoma State Senator Penny Williams the room was simply packed. That's standing room only at 8am on a Monday so clearly this IS an issue with momentum.

The panel began with an introduction by the President of the United Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten. She explained that educators know intuitively "in their guts" that universal preschool is essential to giving kids the level playing field they need when entering school. Luckily we don't have to rely on guts alone to show the benefits of pre-k, The Pew Charitable Trusts have issued numerous studies demonstrating the lasting value that preschool education gives children and society as a whole (they have some excellent fact sheets including this one on Economic Benefits of Quality Preschool Education for America's 3- and 4-Year Olds and this one on Why All Children Benefit from Pre-K).

Speakers on the panel where New York Council Speaker Quinn, Nancy Kolben, Co-director of the Winning Beginning NY Campaign and Adelaide Sanford, Vice Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents (a woman deserving her own chapter in Bartlett's Book of Quotations, her words where so incisive).

Offering universal pre-k isn't extremely controversial, yet it never quite seems to happen in New York despite its huge success in Oklahoma. This is bound to change because the payoff for any elected that made universal preschool a reality would be huge. Speaker Quinn explained that providing more preschool classes shows families that government can do something concrete to help them. The importance of pre-k for working parents was underlined by her explanation that there are currently vacant spots for children in half-day pre-k but none left in all-day preschool because parents need their children cared for all day, not just for a few hours. She emphasized the connection between pre-k and workforce issues saying

"this is about working people and children...[providing access to pre-K] recognizes the daily struggles and challenges people have in their lives."

At events she's spoken at throughout the city- from middle class neighborhoods to low income ones the topic that's received the biggest applause has been universal preschool.

Geri Palast from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity- the organization leading the fight to end the state government's grossly unequal equation for funding the local school systems had some news for us. She explained that creating access to pre-k is explicitly part of the CFE's plan regardless of the amount of money NYC and other under-funded localities receive after the court decision.

Recognizing how preschool education sets the stage for education throughout life was a reoccurring theme today. Panelists and experts in the audience who posed questions to the panel all spoke about pre-k as an investment in the future success of youth - both economically and educationally. Regent Sanford explained her observation that a bad choice the state has made time and again is the choice between increasing funding for schools and increasing funding for prisons. When she's visited the prisons - most of which are in upstate New York- she found the inmates did not have early childhood education.

Dear cynics, don't dismiss Regent Samford's taking the side of nurture over nature as liberal fluff. Even the RAND Corporation has research proving the connection she speaks of. Regent Sanford has seen that many lawmakers upstate don't get the connection between investing in preschool and crime prevention and investing in the state's economy by creating an educated workforce. She pointed out how hard many upstate legislators lobby the state for funding to build prisons and locate them in their districts yet those same legislators won't support funding for schools.

All that reminds me of DMI Fellow Ezekiel Edward's recent op-ed about upstate voting districts that only exist because of prison populations. Seeing those connections is part of why I enjoy our Marketplace of Events panels so much. Regent Sanford's argument that the state needs to do a better job of "finding a preventive modality" and all the money we'd save on not building prisons if it was spent on education was so well argued I seriously suggest you listen to her and the rest of our speakers when the podcast and video of today's event goes up on the DMI website later this month.

There are lots of different ways to look at today's panel. On Daily Gotham Daniel Millstone addressed the conflict between community groups and other education advocates over whether the preschool programs should be run out of community based organizations or by the school system and how race and class relates to that conflict.

Speaking of race Regent Sanford hit the nail on the head pointing out that "experts" are comfortable analyzing social problems from prisons to poverty to education in terms of people's race, yet when the experts talk about solutions they refuse to recognize race in the solutions they propose. In this case that would mean additional preschool access targeted to minority communities.

There was a lot of discussion over whether the immediate policy push should be for preschool for all or if demanding preschool for those who need it most is the right first step to take. Speaker Quinn spoke eloquently about the conflict councilmembers face when dealing with parochialism vs. the good of the city. Heck, the whole approach to education funding issues is far too often fraught with parochialism. Seriously, what do you expect from any program funded by property taxes?!?! Regent Sanford spoke about going to education conferences where there were panels for their presumably middle class audience titled "Is the Robin Hood System Ok?" implying that richer districts are being robbed to fund poorer ones. Regent Sanford won't abide by that framing;

"It's not Robin Hood, the truth of the matter is you rob the hood"

I presume she was referencing how places like New York City pay more in taxes than we get in return. Regardless I want that line on a t-shirt.

Speaker Quinn and State Senator Williams had both stressed how supportive the business community was for universal pre-k because they view it as a workforce investment issue. Regent Sanford suggested that the incoming governor needs to ask the business community some challenging questions about their support. She said the business community needs to see how there is a relation between students future success in school and housing built in NYC.


Regent Sanford explained how the schools that are struggling the most tend to be the most segregated schools and in New York the way housing is constructed tends to lead toward racial segregation. So I guess the conclusion she'd have the business community draw from that argument is that next time a developer that supports education wants to build a luxury condo he should include an affordable housing component in his project. Who knew a panelist at an education policy panel would end up touching on mandatory inclusionary zoning?!

For more insights check here throughout the week. Today's discussion will continue generating conversation on this blog and beyond, that much is clear.

Elana Levin: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 9:42 PM, Oct 30, 2006 in Cities | Criminal Justice | Economic Opportunity | Economy | Education | Housing | New York | Politics | Prisons | Progressive Agenda | Progressives | States | Youth | public services
Permalink | Email to Friend