The Fight for Universal Pre-K: New York Charts a Checkered Path Toward Equal Early Education

2014 903 prek fwNew York City mayor Bill De Blasio promotes universal pre-kindergarten at P.S. 20 in Lower East Side, NY, April 5, 2013. (Photo: Bill de Blasio)

New York City mayor Bill de Blasio touted universal pre-kindergarten as a way to fight inequality. But the program shows inequalities of its own.

The first day of school is fast approaching, and this fall in New York City it will look a little different, as new mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature program, universal pre-kindergarten, rolls out.

“New York City has made a historic commitment to providing families like yours with free, full-day, high-quality pre-K. We hope you are as excited as we are for the first school year of Pre-K for All, and we wish you and your child the best as you join our public education system,” read a statement from de Blasio and schools chancellor Carmen Fariña welcoming parents to the new program.

September 8 will be the first full day of school for those New York students who applied in time to be accepted into pre-K programs at the city’s public schools. The programs are the result of several months of hustling, after a budget deal in March with Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave de Blasio most of the funding he needed to make free full-day classes a reality.

Around the country, pre-K has gained new attention in recent years, with perhaps unlikely states – like Oklahoma – instituting popular programs, and President Obama calling for a national program in his 2013 State of the Union address. De Blasio famously campaigned against growing inequality in New York and positioned his pre-K plan as a cornerstone of this fight. The governor thwarted part of that plan by preventing the city from raising taxes on the rich to pay for the expanded programs, which certainly changes the impact on New York’s rising inequality: Not only will the rich not see a dent in their ever-rising incomes, but also the funds for pre-K have to be squeezed from somewhere else.

“When white middle-class parents want early childhood education for their kids it’s called preschool. When parents of color and those who are low-income support it, it becomes dedicated babysitting.”

The lack of dedicated funding has contributed to a sense that pre-K is coming together somewhat haphazardly. Early childhood education is not a magic bullet for solving inequality in a still-stagnant economy with too few job prospects for even the well-educated, but the success it can deliver will depend on whether New York is able to create truly equitable, universal, high-quality programs. At the moment, that remains an open question.

Zakiyah Ansari, advocacy director of the Alliance for Quality Education and a member of de Blasio’s transition team, has worked to bring universal pre-K to New York for years. “We know that it works to help young people,” she said. “Black and brown children living in poverty tend to come into school knowing fewer words, and having maybe never even experienced school at all.”

Free all-day programs can also be a lifeline to parents struggling with sky-high child care costs, points out Brian Jones, a former New York City elementary school teacher, current Green Party candidate for lieutenant governor of New York State, and parent of a young child approaching preschool age. “You easily can pay more than your rent just in child care,” Jones said. “What a lot of people have to do is choose between work and child care – then, when you lose those years working, it’s harder to maintain professional contacts, the connections that we all know are so essential to not only getting a job, but advancing in your job.”

The focus in New York politics in recent years has decidedly not been on the needs of working-class parents and children, particularly of color. Twelve years of a billionaire mayor – and even the last four years of a Democratic governor whose economic development strategy is often made up of tax cuts for corporations and the rich – left a lot of people feeling ignored and forgotten, and they turned out to vote for de Blasio’s populist message.

However, once elected, the mayor seemed to be a step behind Governor Cuomo when it came to negotiating in Albany. The struggle began shortly after he took office in January, and it seemed to reach a rather nasty peak in early March when Cuomo appeared at a pro-charter schools rally held in Albany by charter school entrepreneur Eva Moskowitz on the same day as de Blasio’s rally for his pre-K plan.

Perhaps the biggest way that the new pre-K program can impact economic inequality is by creating good jobs for the people who work in the classroom.

Ansari, who went to Albany to lobby for the plan, said that in addition to the debate over funding, there was a kind of disrespect for the idea of preschool that felt ugly. “I saw people defining it as just dedicated child care, babysitting,” she said. “When white middle-class parents want early childhood education for their kids it’s called preschool. When parents of color and those who are low-income support it, it becomes dedicated babysitting. I thought that was a really interesting way to frame this, or maybe it was a way to dissuade folks from supporting it.”

The deal came out at the end of March: $340 million in the budget for statewide pre-K in the 2014-15 school year, with nearly $300 million of that going just to New York City, the result of de Blasio’s heavy lobbying and the subject of some contention elsewhere in the state, where advocates note that New York City has half the students but got 87 percent of the funds. De Blasio had hoped, with his tax increase, to raise $340 million just for the city. On the whole, the state pledged to increase pre-K funding by $1.5 billion over the next five years. Both de Blasio and Cuomo called it a win, and Ansari agrees that it’s a game changer. Yet, she noted, what Albany giveth, it often taketh away: “What I’ve seen over the years as someone who’s been an advocate, a parent volunteer and now working for AQE, every year there’s always an excuse for why we can’t fund something. Then at the same time you turn around and see tax cuts for the rich, corporations – come open up a business, no taxes for 10 years – but when it comes to education, we don’t see that as a priority, especially in the communities that we’re talking about.”

Jones, who has been campaigning across the state, said he has heard from many that the state funding wasn’t enough to achieve the goal of creating truly universal pre-K – that the system is more of “a patchwork.”

Not only that, but the money is only now being distributed to school districts. It was August 18 when the state announced how it would break down the $40 million – the pre-K funding for locations outside New York City – between 62 districts statewide. Buffalo will get $2.6 million; Newburgh gets the largest amount outside of New York City with $2.8 million. But with the short notice, some of those districts said they couldn’t be ready by the first day of school. Newburgh will delay its full-day program by a month or so to prepare for an expected 542 students.

“Districts are barely holding on as it is and then we want them to fund pre-K up front; what happens to all the other programs that they’ve already lost and are trying to hold on to now?” Ansari said.

In New York City, meanwhile, the de Blasio administration shifted into high gear, trying to create space for 53,000 new preschoolers in five months. According to The New York Times, representatives from five different city agencies met every two weeks to ensure progress was being made.

It’s expected that there are more than 70,000 families in New York City alone who want full-day pre-K, so there won’t be space for every 4-year-old this year. But the new program has more than doubled the amount of seats available, from around 20,000 last year, through a combination of public school programs, charter schools, and options at what they’re calling community-based early childhood centers (CBECCs). These are private – and in some cases, religious – organizations that partner with the city to provide a Department of Education-approved curriculum linked to the Common Core educational standards. They will receive approximately $10,000 per student in tuition payments from the city for their official programs.

Around 40 percent of the students in the new pre-K will be in public schools, and the rest will be at CBECCs or charters, and, according to The Times, about 15 percent of the 1,200 private providers who are part of the program are faith-based organizations, prompting another scramble to ensure that church and state remain separate in the publicly-funded classroom.

Evidence of the time crunch created by prolonged struggle in Albany is perhaps most obvious in the news that, just a week before the school year begins, City Comptroller Scott Stringer issued a news release that only 141 of over 500 new contracts for pre-K providers have been provided to his office for vetting. “Universal Pre-K holds the promise of transforming our City’s educational process, which is why we have to get it right,” Stringer said in the statement.

Opportunity to Create Good Jobs

Perhaps the biggest way that the new pre-K program can impact economic inequality, Brian Jones points out, is by creating good jobs for the people who work in the classroom. Some 1,000 new positions were created this year between public schools and CBECCs, and so far, not all of those jobs are created equal.

In the public schools, teachers will be employees of the New York City Department of Education and must hold New York State teaching certificates in early childhood. They will be members of the United Federation of Teachers; the beginning salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree is over $48,000 a year. At CBECCs, the teachers will be employees of the individual center, and are not automatically union members (though some centers are organized with AFSCME District Council 1707, which represents a variety of care workers). Their certification requirements are not quite as strict, but they are required to have an education plan to get state certified within three years if they are not already. Concerns that the CBECC programs would be less professional than the public schools led the mayor to raise pay for them to $44,000 for teachers with a bachelor’s and state certification.

Jason Smith, a Manhattan preschool teacher who spoke to Truthout on condition that his real name not be used, spent the last six years working in a Head Start program in a CBECC. This year, he will be teaching pre-K in a public school program; the wage ceiling at the CBECCs led him to apply and a lucky connection, a friend who worked in a public school that was hiring for pre-K, helped him land the job. As a head teacher last year, with a master’s degree and a union contract with DC 1707, Smith said he made $44,000.

“[CBECC] UPK and community-based Head Start, the maximum salary is set at $50,000, no matter how much more schooling you get, no matter how much experience, it’s basically set,” he said, adding that the difference creates a two-tiered wage system between the CBECCs and the public schools, where $50,000 is near the starting wage and regular increases can be expected. “In the school that I just left, they’re getting four pre-K classes, except none of the teachers want to go to it, because while it pays better and has the same schedules, like summers off, it’s non-unionized.”

“People who do this kind of caring work are so notoriously not cared for in our society themselves. The very act of caring is so gendered, that type of work is so overwhelmingly female and then their supposed ‘natural’ inclination to do it is almost used against them when they want to ask for decent wages and benefits and working conditions.”

A UFT spokesperson confirmed that the programs in CBECCs do not fall under their contract, and declined to answer my question as to whether they had plans to try to organize the new teachers. DC 1707 confirmed that they will be representing some of the new teachers, but did not respond by press time as to how many. However, G.L. Tyler, DC 1707’s political director, told The Times that pre-K teachers had not had a raise in more than seven years and that many of them find the offered health insurance too expensive. “Sixty percent of our members are uninsured,” he said.

Smith also said that his former program might be actively recruiting teachers without advanced degrees so that they can pay them less.

Before the current administration raised wages, preschool teachers in the Head Start program were covered by the city’s living wage law, which set the wage floor at $10 per hour, or $11.50 per hour if health benefits were not provided. (In contrast, a data entry operator has wages set at $14.10 per hour under the law.) The Department of Education did not return repeated requests for comment, so it remains unclear whether teacher’s aides working in CBECC programs will be subject to any wage regulation other than the living wage law.

Early childhood, Smith said, “is one of the most important developmental stages, as far as how children look at learning and how they’re taught to think.” Yet low pay leads to high turnover in early childhood education programs. “Young teachers will start out there going for their bachelor’s or with their bachelor’s and then as soon as they get their master’s, everybody tries to get out,” he said.

Economic research confirms what Smith told Truthout. In the book For Love And Money, edited by economist Nancy Folbre, Candace Howes, Carrie Leana and Kristin Smith report that around one-third of early childhood educators leave their jobs each year. If, as Ansari said, the de Blasio administration wants to ensure that universal pre-K is taught by experienced teachers, they’ll have to do something to change that turnover rate.

Howes, Leana and Smith also report that “small differences in the ages of the children being cared for are associated with large differences in pay” – and the older, the better. Even the difference in pay between pre-K and kindergarten teachers is significant. And Jones attributes that difference to the gendered nature of the work.

To ensure the pre-K system isn’t helping perpetuate the kind of inequality it was designed to fight, the first step should be ensuring that all of the teachers have the protection of a union.

“People who do this kind of caring work are so notoriously not cared for in our society themselves. The very act of caring is so gendered, that type of work is so overwhelmingly female and then their supposed ‘natural’ inclination to do it is almost used against them when they want to ask for decent wages and benefits and working conditions,” he said. “I think that’s part of what’s always at play when we see people who do caring work who are systematically mistreated, underpaid and underserved themselves.”

Smith agrees; he said he’s one of the only male early childhood teachers in any place he’s worked. “The majority of women at my job were women of color, and a lot of them still receive housing assistance and food stamps and lots of benefits even though they all work full-time, because the pay, especially for assistant teachers and aides, is really low.”

Nationwide, according to For Love And Money, child care workers in general are 96.5 percent female and nearly 19 percent of them live in poverty. Black and Latina women are also overrepresented in the low-paying child care professions. Research has also found that teachers’ credentials may be less important than characteristics like energy, enthusiasm and motivation – characteristics likely to be affected by one’s working environment, Howes, Leana and Smith note.

Inequality, then, appears in many forms in the pre-K struggle. “For the last few years of advocacy,” Ansari said, “the folks that are most impacted whether it’s students and/or the workers are predominantly women and have been predominantly people of color.”

To ensure the pre-K system isn’t helping perpetuate the kind of inequality it was designed to fight, Jones said, the first step should be ensuring that all of the teachers have the protection of a union. “The idea should be that the union sets a kind of floor for what people are paid in the industry and the more the unions move into early daycare and child care, really early years, the better.”

To some extent, this did happen in New York City’s universal pre-K program; de Blasio managed to raise wages for CBECC teachers in order to allow the organizations to retain staff. But to attract people who really want to be dedicated early childhood educators, Jones argues, the city and state need to do better. “Doing early childhood right not only requires paying people well, but it requires having much better staffing ratios to truly give children individualized attention and truly let them have free imaginative play, which with small staffing would be chaotic, but with the right staffing could be beautiful.”

It will require giving early childhood educators the respect they deserve – not because “dedicated babysitters” don’t also deserve a living wage, but because denigrating the work done by women, mostly women of color, has consequences for all. It will require sustaining the fight for full funding across the state, and perhaps calling once again for a dedicated tax to pay for the program.

Ansari, for now, is taking the long view. “When we get it right . . . within the next four years, it will show the rest of the country what it really looks like and what it really takes to educate children, all children, black and brown children in the most struggling communities across the city, hopefully across the state,” she said. The agenda, she points out, is not just about pre-K or K-12, college or even work; it is also about ensuring living wages for all. “All these things are connected together.”