Public education in the United States is under attack. Last year, the Trump administration proposed cutting billions in education funding. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos openly scorns the public school system. When she visited New York City in May, she opted not to visit a single public school in the largest school system in the country. Across the US, teachers have gone on strike to protest devastating budget cuts and demand fairer salaries. National publications have openly pondered whether “public education has a future.”
The US needs a public education system for the 21st century that goes beyond our outdated concept of K-12 education and redefines our commitment to education to include both early childhood development and post-secondary schooling. New York should become the first state in the country to constitutionally guarantee free, quality public education from pre-K through college.
For New Yorkers, educating young people has always been an integral component of empowering youth and building productive communities. Brooklyn, for instance, appointed its first schoolmaster in 1661. But back then, education wasn’t accessible to all; it wasn’t until 1894 that the state constitution mandated “the maintenance and support of a system of free common schools, wherein all the children of this state may be educated.” This provision, though ahead of its time, was rather broad. It was left to the courts and additional laws to refine its meaning. Today, New York State requires only that children ages 5 to 16 attend school — and the state only provides free public education from kindergarten through high school.
We must be bolder. New York should lead the nation and be the first state to guarantee free quality public education from prekindergarten through college.
In 1894, providing for free high school education was an incredibly forward-looking idea. But to succeed in the 21st century job market, most students will need some post-secondary education at a minimum. Current projections indicate that 3.5 million jobs in New York State will require an associate’s degree or higher by 2024. We also know how extremely important early childhood education is to healthy child development. Multiple studies have concluded that children who attend high-quality prekindergarten (pre-K) programs fare better in life than those who don’t. Overall, pre-K students have better outcomes in primary and secondary school, and they are more likely to attend post-secondary programs, earn higher wages and lead healthier lives.
Although both pre-K and post-secondary education are necessary for children to have their best chance at future success, the costs of early education and college make them inaccessible for many. Today, 79 percent of 4-year-olds in the state outside of New York City lack full-day pre-K. Prior to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s investment in full-day Universal Prekindergarten Program (UPK) for all, fewer than 27 percent of New York City children could afford full-day pre-K.
Meanwhile, the Urban Institute’s new “Debt in America” study shows that an alarming 17 percent of New Yorkers are burdened by student loan debt, with a median amount owed of $18,205 — a sobering reality that I know all too well thanks to my own student loans. My professor used to tell a not-so-funny joke that if we died before we paid off our student loans, we would beat the system.
We know the kind of basic, quality public education students need to compete and succeed in the future, but New York is not currently committed to providing it to them. Yes, Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have both made strides to make pre-K and post-secondary education more accessible to all New Yorkers through UPK and the Excelsior Scholarship, a program that allows students to attend state university and city university colleges tuition-free if they attend full-time and meet certain income requirements. But these programs by themselves are insufficient. Even with UPK and Excelsior, millions of young New Yorkers are left behind: Students who don’t have access to free pre-K and those whose families don’t meet income requirements or are unable to attend school full-time.
And even if we do expand these programs to all students, what’s to say that the funding will always be there? Funding for these necessary programs could easily get lost in backroom budget negotiations or could be slashed if the state faces tough days ahead. Plus, we’ve already seen all too clearly what a hostile federal government can do to state and local education funding. How will access to free pre-K and public college fare in future budgets if lawmakers aren’t required to continue funding them?
This is why a constitutional amendment guaranteeing free quality public education from pre-K through college is so critical. If education is to be a “great equalizer,” then we must expand our vision of public education — and we must enshrine that vision into a constitutional commitment so it never falls victim to political whims.
New York should set an example for the country by adopting a constitutional amendment guaranteeing pre-K and college education for all, so that every child has the opportunity to reach their full potential.