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.