Pre-kindergarten a good idea whose time has finally come
With the election of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, the year of enhanced pre-K education has arrived.
Among all the reforms from the time of John Holt in the early 1970s to Common Core in the present era, this modest and sensible proposal from de Blasio is the single upgrade in education practice that promises to bring the biggest long-term educational improvements.
Finally pre-K education is getting the attention it deserves. Against the backdrop of the Core Curriculum blather and bustle — spearheaded as it is by politicians and academics, most of whom, from Gov. Cuomo to state Education Commissioner John King, and including most of the unelected members of the Board of Regents, who have little or no experience actually teaching children in public school classrooms — the idea to expand pre-K education is rational and sensible. With Common Core, we might as well convene a diverse committee of dentists to reform the practice of law, or a committee of car dealers to reform the health care system.
All the pop educational reform ideas — from the “student-centered,” “content-light,” “open” classrooms of the 1970s, to the faulty conclusions of the A Nation at Risk and No Child Left Behind and, now, Core Curriculum eras — have shackled the public educational system. Most of these pop educational reform ideas have done far more harm than good. The careerist “experts” who concoct such reform plans apparently do not see themselves as a main part of the educational problem.
At long last comes the common-sense idea that getting children into a school as early as possible is good policy. Move them into nurturing group situations away from impoverished homes and incompetent parenting. Move them into effective early literacy programs far away from video and computer screens used as child-sitters. It is a good idea to shift the focus for improvement to pre-K children and away from an overemphasis on high school students, too many of whom have already been spoiled for serious learning and achievement by commercial public culture and the alluring hedonistic distractions of tech gadgetry.
This plan is in the interests of young children. It is in the interest of most parents. Moreover, it is in the long-term interests of the economy — to reach young children before they develop insurmountable social and learning deficits. The long-term social and economic benefits of good pre-K programs beckon.
The centerpiece of de Blasio’s plan is to fund universal pre-kindergarten and to expand after-school programs for middle school students. It will be financed by raising taxes on the wealthiest city residents. The tax rate would increase from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. Is a half a percentage point increase on the top 5 percent earners really going to hurt the wealthiest New Yorkers so much? Especially after all the tax relief and income increases they have seen over the last 15 years.
Let’s face it: A pre-K upgrade is simply a sane and long overdue public service project.
The hitch in the pre-K plan is in Albany. The mayor of New York cannot raise taxes without the sanction of the state Legislature and Gov. Cuomo. The governor, for his part, has given lukewarm support to the idea, but his first priority is apparently to give more tax breaks by reducing state business taxes from 7 percent to 6.5 percent.
Pre-K educational classes are inexpensive and widely available in almost all enlightened nations that have a democratic form of government. But not the United States.
The chance for a quality pre-K system in this country came and went in 1971 when a group of Washington officials in the Nixon administration, with the encouragement and support of forces in the civil rights movement, drafted the Comprehensive Child Care and Development Act.
That act would have provided a nationwide system of high-quality day care, preschool and home visitation programs. It passed both houses of Congress with bipartisan support. Then, President Nixon vetoed it, against the advice of one of the main architects of the bill, the head of Nixon’s own Office of Childhood Development, Edward Zigler. More details about the campaign by a small number of right-wing conservatives within the Nixon administration to thwart this sensible bill can be read in a Sept. 26, 2013 New York Review of Books essay by Helen Epstein.
Gov. Cuomo seems convinced that “economics” drives everything. As if smart “economics” is giving tax breaks to already-privileged people at a time when income inequality in this state and nation has been increasing.
The new mayor of New York City seems to believe that investing in people is the way to go. I am on his side. De Blasio’s plan represents a good investment of public money.
Expanding pre-K education at the expense of a marginal 0.5 percent tax increase for wealthy New Yorkers is good public policy. It is also an appropriate move away from the wider culture of increasing inequality characterized by arrogant indifference to the chronically disadvantaged.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.