Updated on February 26, 2015

In his campaign for mayor in 2013, Bill de Blasio committed to creating a free full-day preschool program for all of New York City’s 4-year-olds. Back then, fewer than 27 percent of that age group had access to such services, largely because of the high cost. And the idea was to narrow the achievement gap by removing barriers to early education for families that couldn’t otherwise afford it. Like many policymakers and children’s advocates, including President Obama, de Blasio had concluded that universal prekindergarten—a model known in education circles as UPK—would be key to solving the city’s socioeconomic inequalities.

So, upon assuming office last January, de Blasio did what he had promised: He planted the seeds of a universal pre-k program, and by the fall his administration had created more than 26,000 new, tuition-free seats in full-day preschools for children across the income scale. Legislators and governors across the country waxed lyrical about the city’s initiative, framing it as a paragon for other school districts and states to follow. After all, though most states have some form of public preschool in place, only two—Georgia and Oklahoma—currently have free, universal pre-k that’s available to kids of all means.  

The problem is, New York City’s universal preschool program isn’t looking so universal, according to new findings from the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Human Development. In fact, the Berkeley researchers, who have been following the system’s progress since its launch, say the preschool-expansion effort is tilting significantly toward middle-class and affluent families—not the lower-income ones, whose kids would, experts contend, most benefit from early-education opportunities.

"The de Blasio people have been very keen on universal entitlements as a way to alleviate costs from middle-class budgets," said Bruce Fuller, the UC Berkeley education and public-policy professor who led the study and has long been skeptical of universal pre-k programs. "It seems like he's really come to emphasize [that priority]."

What Fuller and his team found is that the preschool seats are more prevalent in the city’s most affluent neighborhoods than they are in the poorest ones. Whereas 41 percent of the slots are located in the most affluent one-fifth of the city’s zip codes, just 30 percent of them are in the poorest one-fifth—a dynamic that researchers in part attribute to New York’s real-estate limitations. Upper-middle-class areas appear to have gotten about as many new pre-k seats as have the poorest ones. And roughly 11,000 4-year-olds living in those poorest neighborhoods aren’t even enrolled in the program, according Fuller.

The mayor's office did not respond to numerous requests for comment before this story was published. However, Devora Kaye, the spokeswoman for the city's Department of Education, sent an emailed response after the story ran strongly disputing Fuller's findings:

This study is based on errors and false assumptions that no early education expert would make. Every 4-year-old benefits from a high-quality educational experience which is why we boosted the number of seats across the City. Now, nearly two-thirds of free, full-day, high-quality pre-K seats are in neighborhoods below the City's median income. We are expanding pre-K to every eligible four-year-old, and we are committed to meeting this goal.

Later, de Blasio spokesman Wiley Norvell shared this statement, too:

Dr. Fuller completely misses the point. Thousands of children, most of them in low-income communities, now have pre-k for the very first time. But part of our mission is also to create better options even for those who had some sort of childcare before. When a family that had to pay thousands out of pocket is now getting pre-K for free, that’s a win for that family. When a child that would have sat in daycare is now getting high-quality, educationally enriching pre-k instead, that’s a win for that child. And when a community that previously only had half-day options now has pre-k for the whole day, that’s a win for that community. The whole point of this program is to create high-quality, free, full-day options for every family—every child, rich and poor. That’s why we’re here. And by any honest measure, that’s what we’re achieving.

The mayor's administration made a similar argument in response to Fuller's preliminary study last fall, saying that his use of percentage-growth data rather than hard numbers was misleading because it failed to account for the fact that many poor neighborhoods already had preschool seats.

According to the de Blasio administration, many more low-income kids are being served: As Kaye indicated, almost two-thirds of the new seats are in neighborhoods below the city's median income of $50,000 for a family of four, according to an informational sheet the office distributed to reporters after the news broke. The document also challenges the premise that 41 percent and 30 percent of slots are in the richest neighborhoods and poorest neighborhoods, respectively, saying the data "is mixing apples and oranges" because it refers to "the entire preschool landscape" in the city for children ages two through five—not just the mayor's universal pre-k initiative. And the fact that the numbers are tilted toward middle-class and affluent families, according to the mayor's office, is based solely on the fact that these areas have more pre-k programs, including private ones, to begin with.

But the study finds that, though de Blasio’s office insists that the new program is benefitting lower-income parts of the city, that claim fails to take into account the much higher numbers of 4-year-olds living in poor neighborhoods than in more affluent ones. Following up on the administration's response, Fuller said the percentages reveal that de Blasio is "evenly spreading new seats across the city, rich and poor ... and this fails to move the system toward equitable access."

"To [de Blasio’s] credit, they did enroll about 10,000 children in neighborhoods below the median income of all families; it’s just that when you adjust for where 4-year-olds live" the distribution of seats doesn’t match the need, Fuller said, pointing to similar backlash his research got last November, when he published preliminary research on the program. "When we put out our first analysis, they said, ‘Not true, we enrolled 10,000 kids from low-income families'—but a lot of them were pulled out of existing programs."

Fuller cited a preschool he and his team visited in East Harlem that said it had lost 54 kids to the new public pre-k centers: "These were kids of low-income parents in East Harlem who weren’t paying anything for preschool. [De Blasio] has expanded [preschool among] lower-income families but hasn’t invited new families into the system. He’s just playing musical chairs and drawing low-income kids out of existing preschools."

Indeed, under pressure to meet de Blasio’s enrollment target—which theoretically amounts to more than 73,000 children by next school year—Fuller said the city aggressively and hastily recruited kids to the city program. As many as three-fifths of those 26,000 children left existing preschools that aren’t participating in the public program, according to Fuller. About 40 percent of those 26,000 slots were created in public schools, while the rest were divvied up among some 500 private centers that were able to contract with the city. (Many of the centers that applied for the program, according to Fuller, were rejected; there are about 1,900 privately operated preschools in the city, meaning that nearly three-fourths of them have potentially lost business.)

That could also mean that de Blasio’s pre-k program isn’t necessarily achieving its objective of significantly expanding access to children who wouldn’t have otherwise enrolled in preschool. Drawing from surveys conducted among a random sample of the preschools in the city that didn’t get funding last fall, the researchers concluded that these centers have each lost an average of nearly 10 children to pre-k centers that are participating in the program. Extrapolating from those survey results, the researchers estimate that between 10,350 and 15,950 of the 26,000 new slots were filled by kids who were already slated to attend preschool. Like the East Harlem example, some of these preschools are well-established centers that have long served low-income families, often thanks to grant money and other aid. This redistribution process, the researchers say, has created instability for children and weakens the city’s early-education network as a whole, creating "wasteful competition" between the fee-based centers and the public ones.

New York City is home to some of the largest income gaps in the United States; the chasm between Manhattan’s richest and poorest households in 2013 was the country’s largest, according to census data. And the state of New York, according to some data sets, has the highest center-based preschool care in the country, probably because of what it costs in the city. For the average low-income family in 2012, preschool tuition accounted for nearly two-thirds of its household earnings; for a medium-income family, roughly half of its household earnings went to pre-k tuition. Child Care Aware estimates that the average annual cost of center-based care for a 4-year-old in New York that year was $12,355—more than the amount a four-year City University of New York college charges for yearly tuition.

What that picture amounts to is a two-tiered education system that starts when kids are just toddlers—the genesis of an achievement gap that widens over time. In New York City, as in many places, early education has largely been a luxury reserved only for families of means. And while research on the long-term benefits of preschool are widely debated, most experts seem to agree that it can have a significant impact on later outcomes. That’s particularly true for disadvantaged children, who wouldn’t otherwise have access to the kind of stimulation a preschool setting can provide: everything from language development to proper nutrition. Having high-quality early education, some small-scale studies suggest, can decrease the likelihood that a child will have to repeat a grade, get arrested, and rely on welfare.

Leaders ranging from politicians to business executives are increasingly aware of these conclusions, and many have been trying to expand preschool opportunities for years. New York City, for its part, has long tried to ramp up access. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who served from 2002 to 2014, sought to expand pre-k offerings in low-income parts of the city. Though Bloomberg’s approach differed from de Blasio’s in that it wasn’t focused on universal expansion, that initiative, too, had limited success—and largely because of similar reasons: New York City’s perennial space limitations and high-cost real estate. As the education news source Chalkbeat New York recently reported, the city is currently scouring public-school buildings for classroom space (only six charter schools are currently participating in the program), as well as having real-estate brokers search for additional private locations. "The city is so built out—it’s so hard to find space," Fuller said.

New York City's pre-k programs, according to Fuller, probably expanded more easily in middle-class areas because that’s where space is available. Hence, a paradox: The areas that are arguably most in need of expanded pre-k options are precisely the places where it’s most difficult to roll out new seats.

It’s a paradox that creates thorny issues politically, too. "It’s a sort of bedeviling dilemma for Democrats—do they want to remain focused on inequality and narrowing disparities in kids’ learning or, in an election season, are they going to totally slip over to a middle-class agenda?" Fuller said. "De Blasio is really operating for the latter and not the former."