Since taking office last year, New York Mayor Bill De Blasio has been leading an ambitious effort to dramatically expand pre-kindergarten access in the Big Apple, as part of a broader attempt to reduce New York’s income inequality.
The plan relies on about $300 million in funding from the state of New York, with pre-K seats more than doubling from about 20,000 to over 40,000 in a single year. There’s just one problem.
An analysis by professor and early childhood education expert Bruce Fuller at the University of California-Berkeley finds that the benefits of greater pre-K access have mostly fallen on the wealthier areas of the city, potentially increasing the academic opportunity gap between the city’s rich and poor.
The gap is clear even at the borough level. Staten Island, which has the highest median household income of the five boroughs, had its pre-K seat count in public schools increase by over 60 percent in a single year, putting it well on pace to achieve De Blasio’s goal of having a pre-K seat for every child.
In the Bronx, on the other hand, where the median household income is less than half that of Staten Island, pre-K expansion is just getting off the ground, and seats at public school pre-K programs have risen by a measly ten percent.
The gap persists when looking through New York’s 140 zip codes as well. Within New York’s upper middle class zip codes (defined as those ranging from the fiftieth to the seventy-fifth percentile of income), the median zip saw a 17-percent increase in pre-K seats. The median zip for the poorest quarter of New Yorkers saw a rise of just five percent.
Fuller offers no concrete reasons as to the skewed distribution, but ventures several theories. One possibility, he writes, is that early expansion priorities were dictated by De Blasio’s desire to increase the number of seats as rapidly as possible. In their rush to expand access, he said, city officials may have prioritized any public schools that had readily available space and higher levels of parent demand. Both factors are more common in high-earning areas, where schools are less crowded and parents more likely to be actively involved with their childrens’ educations.
A key component of De Blasio’s expansion is a reliance on community-based organizations (CBOs) to offer pre-K programs in areas where ordinary public schools are simply not up to the task. Overall, CBOs offer about 55 percent of all new pre-K seats. However, these CBOs, according to Fuller, aren’t working as planned, with most new seats concentrating in the same “economically robust” areas that public school seats are concentrating in.
If the inequalities are not resolved, Fuller warns, De Blasio’s ambitious program runs the risk of “harden[ing] disparities in early learning – as schools and communities with stronger capacity reap the bulk of benefits.”
The city has been swift to protest Fuller’s findings, arguing that at the individual neighborhood level, seats have primarily helped the disadvantaged. By its own measurements, the city said, new pre-K seats in the city’s poorest zip codes have outpaced new seats in the richest by a factor of over ten to one.
“This study is based on errors and false assumptions that no New Yorker or early-education expert would ever make…[It’s] not just misleading, it’s offensive,” Wiley Norvell, a spokesman for the mayor’s office, said in a sharply-worded statement.
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