Inequality is bequeathed early and hardened fast. Research indicates that by the time low-income children are 5 years old, they typically hear 30 million fewer words than their more affluent counterparts. That “word gap” reflects a general lack of school readiness that affects performance in the early grades, which then sets students on a less successful path through middle school, high school, and life.
A desire to interrupt that process of replicative injustice is what has driven the effort toward universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) for 4-year-olds, a cause New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio famously adopted during his 2013 run for mayor and implemented citywide in less than two years, an achievement for which his many detractors rarely give him credit. Seventy-thousand children—more than in the entire school districts of Boston, San Francisco, or Atlanta—participate in that program.
Now de Blasio is proposing to chase educational inequalities even further back toward the delivery room. At a school in the South Bronx on Monday, the mayor laid out a vision for establishing citywide preschool for 3-year-olds—universal 3-K—by the year 2021.
“Every child needs to be reached, every child needs to get the strongest possible start,” the mayor said in a school gymnasium at PS 1 in Morrisania, where more than a quarter of students are considered English-language learners, roughly one in five have some special-education need, and the school’s most recent state-test scores—18 percent hit grade-level proficiency on English and 11 percent on math—fell well shy of the citywide average of 39 and 40 percent, respectively. “We have proven through the growth of pre-K that it can be done and it can be done quickly. We have proven that it can reach every child, and the evidence is overwhelming of the impact it is making on children and their schools.”
“We know there is a precious opportunity to reach children at the moment when they can learn and grow the best,” de Blasio continued. “The fact is the most important development of the human mind occurs before the age of five. Parents see it and scientific research confirms it. There is one opportunity to get it right. This is the opportunity we have missed throughout our society for generations.”
“3-K for All in NYC” will be the largest such program in the nation—a “game-changer” according to the mayor. But he warned that pulling it off will be harder than pre-K was.
The effort will start with a focus on the 10,000 or so 3-year-olds who already get early-childhood education through the city’s means-tested Early Learn program. The new investment will provide increased family support, improved teacher training, and a better curriculum.
Next, the administration will provide 3-K for all in two districts, Morrisania in the Bronx and Brownsville in Brooklyn, that have particularly pronounced needs. The city will at the same time launch a survey to find space for the broader program, look to recruit nonprofit providers, and find and train teachers. By 2021, the de Blasio administration will implement 3-K in eight other school districts, serving some 20,000 students. By then, the administration also hopes the state and federal government will have agreed to pick up the cost of expanding the program to the remaining 21 school districts to achieve universal, city-wide 3-k.