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New York City Mayor Goes All-In On Free Preschool

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the graduates of the Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in New York.
Seth Wenig
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks to the graduates of the Boys and Girls High School in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn in New York.

In New York City, some 65,000 children have enrolled in Mayor Bill de Blasio's new, universal preschool program. To put that number in context, that's more than all the public school students — in all grades — in either Washington, D.C., or Boston. Free pre-K for all 4-year-olds was a key de Blasio campaign promise.

The effort puts New York City at the forefront of a movement that has yet to take hold in many American cities. The price is high. De Blasio's program costs roughly $400 million a year. And making sure preschool is "high quality" isn't just expensive, it's a logistical challenge: recruiting and vetting teachers and determining which private providers meet the city's standard.

Robert Siegel, host of NPR's All Things Considered, spoke with Mayor de Blasio Tuesday about the city's pre-K rollout and ongoing efforts to register students. Below is an extended version of that interview.

What does "high quality" mean in the case of pre-K?

It means we're working with a Common Core curriculum. And I am a progressive who believes in Common Core but also believes you need to provide teacher training and the other support to actually live up to the quality standard of Common Core. Our 4-year-olds will do all the fun things 4-year-olds love to do: They'll paint and they'll sing and they'll count numbers out loud. But, at the same time, it will be part of a very carefully calibrated curriculum to prepare them to be on-target for their next experience up ahead in kindergarten.

Does "high quality" mean there is a teacher with a degree in early childhood education?

Yes. We have certified teachers who are specialists in early childhood. In fact, we've had tremendous success. We put out a national call for the best and brightest early childhood teachers. We got a huge response: three qualified teachers for every one position that we had here.

You know, there have been teacher shortages in a lot of the country, but here we found the opposite. There was so much excitement over universal pre-K, truly universal pre-K, that great quality teachers from New York City and from all over wanted to be a part of it. And we think that is one of the great advantages here. A lot of teachers recognize that the biggest impact they can have on a child's life is at the beginning of their educational experience.

We know from scientific studies that brain development at that point is maximizing a student's ability to learn. So, I think there's a great sense that something very special is happening where we can take a whole school system of kids — every background, every neighborhood — and get them all on a strong start at the same time.

I want to pursue that "every neighborhood." A couple of weeks ago the city acknowledged that, despite a lot of recruitment effort and outreach, sign-ups in some low-income neighborhoods have been low and there are vacant places. Why do you think that is?

I think we have to keep reaching out to parents to let them know how important this is for their child. What we found, although in some lower income communities we've had a great response, there have been some other places, central Brooklyn is an example, where it's still not what it should be. We are now doing a whole new type of outreach. We're going door-to-door in a lot of communities with trained outreach workers explaining to parents what a difference pre-K will make for their child's life.

But what is it that you're up against? What's the pushback you've experienced in central Brooklyn?

I think for some parents they just hadn't thought about having their children in a classroom setting so early in their life. And they didn't realize there was such an opportunity to magnify a child's educational trajectory and to prepare them for the future. So, for example, a lot of parents have informal arrangements with family members or neighbors to watch their children, and that's understandable if you don't have any other option. What that means a lot of the time is that the child is parked in front of the TV set, for example.

What we're explaining to parents is that, if you really want your children to have a bright future, give them the opportunity to get a real strong educational start with a full-day pre-K program. For some parents that's just not something they've thought about before or something they experienced as a child, and so it takes time to convince them it will work. But I'll tell you one thing: We had 53,000 kids in pre-K in the last school year. Now over 65,000 signed up for this one. The word-of-mouth impact — of parents talking to other parents, talking to family members, neighbors — I think that is really going to pump up the numbers. Even in the next few weeks and certainly in the years to come.

A Berkeley study found that there are more pre-K seats or centers in the wealthiest New York City ZIP codes than in the poorest, even though there are more 4-year-olds in the poorer neighborhoods. Why that imbalance?

That study is deeply flawed, and I have to tell you: A truly universal program, which we've created, is giving much more opportunity for folks in low-income neighborhoods than they've ever had before. When I came into office, there were 20,000 kids in full-day pre-K, and tomorrow we have 65,000 signed up. Now that's every neighborhood. This is a service being provided to families for free. If you paid for it in the open market, $10,000 — $15,000 easy — in New York City for the same service.

But aren't a lot of those kids, who are in that 65,000, in families that either were or would be paying for pre-K and are now taking advantage of the new entitlement as opposed to the poorest kids in the city?

Well, first, a lot of those kids are from families that could not afford high-quality early childhood education and are finally getting a chance. Second, it's literally every district, every neighborhood you are guaranteed a seat in this program regardless of where you live in the city. Within your school district you are guaranteed a seat. I am certain, I have talked to a lot of middle-class and even upper middle-class parents who are benefiting from this program, and I think they have a right to it as well. It's something that should be, again, as universal as first grade or kindergarten was, this now should be.

The fact it's universal, I believe, lifts all boats. It means children of all backgrounds learn together and, in many cases, come together in a school setting that brings them together like no other part of their life does. And all children benefit. And I think even for middle-class families, a lot of middle-class families in this town are stretched economically. This is the kind of benefit they deserve for their children but also for their household budgets.

Kindergarten and first grade aren't just universal, they're mandatory. How soon should pre-K, in your view, become mandatory? And is the scholarship on the lasting educational benefits of pre-K so solid that it could justify starting public school at 4?

I think that is the way of the future. I think the scholarship is very strong on this and very consistent.

Some would say there is much disputed scholarship on this point.

I don't believe that. Certainly not from all the work we've been doing here and all the experts I've consulted with and certainly not based on the conversations I've had with colleagues around the country who are looking at the same thing in their cities. I think the jury is back on pre-K.

It's been proven to have a huge impact on a child's development. We know that children are able to learn at 3 years old, at 4 years old in a way they just don't later in life. We certainly see that with foreign languages. The classic example: You can take a 3-year-old or a 4-year-old and put them in another country, and they learn the language quickly. You and I would have a hell of a time achieving the same thing. There's a special opportunity to learn at that age.

We're doing it this way, voluntarily — meaning we're offering the service to all parents. We're getting a huge pickup on that. Parents want this for their children. I think one day in this country it can and should be available to all. And I hope the example of New York City will inspire.

Look, this is a tough place to do this. This is a school system with a lot of kids living in poverty, a lot of kids who are English-language learners, a lot of kids with special needs, but it's working. So, to quote the old song: "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere." I hope this example in New York City proves this is something that can be achieved in each and every community in the country.

This is a universal benefit — it's not a means-tested program and you're not just providing free pre-K for kids from poor families. How important to the political success of the program is it that families that would be paying $10,000 a year for this can take advantage of it as well?

Well, I would say it's just like all of public education. Public education was the foundation of a lot of the growth of this country and certainly allowed us to have an educated workforce, which is now more important than any other time in history. Public education has to keep growing with the times, it has to get stronger, and the curriculum has to get more rigorous to keep up with the modern world and the modern economy. Of course you need a strong constituency for that. So I would argue that part of the beauty of the truly universal approach to public education in general and the approach we're taking to pre-K is that with it comes the kind of support that actually locks in the resources so we can properly keep up with the times we're living in.

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Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.
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