Last week, communities across the country held teach-ins, public meetings and rallies to demand justice in schools, as part of a national campaign to “Stop School Pushout.” To resist the “zero-tolerance” brand of school discipline, civil-rights groups demand rehabilitative programs aimed at ending the so-called school-to-prison pipeline, the pattern of harsh disciplinary practices that lead to the suspension, expulsion, and criminalization of kids of color. The movement to stop overpolicing and punitive policies in schools is intersecting with a painfully tender side of educational policy, as urban schools seek to desegregate and promote diversity in early childhood education.
We now know both segregation and discrimination begin on the very first day of preschool.
An analysis of 2014–15 data from New York City’s new universal pre-K (UPK) program by the Century Foundation (TCF) suggests that, while the city has succeeded in enrolling 69,000 preschoolers in a comprehensive early education program, instead of opening opportunities for building equity, pre-kindergarten classrooms are among the city’s most racially divided, potentially extending the scope and depth of educational segregation.
Universal preschool is hailed as a key to education equity. Segregation systematically holds back socioeconomic advancement for children of color, and preschool enrichment is vital for helping remedy the disadvantages of poverty and discrimination in early childhood. To redeem the promise of Brown v. Board of Education, preschool classes should be an ideal place to start correcting inequality, right?
But the data indicate that endemic school segregation in K12 is replicated, perhaps worse, in preschool.
Universal pre-K has dramatically increased access, meeting full citywide demand for classroom placements, covering some 60 percent of eligible 4- and 4-year-olds—a meaningful milestone for families crushed by soaring childcare costs and educational deficits. But TCF shows that many of these new preschool classrooms are even more segregated than their kindergarten counterparts, in part because the system is largely discretionary and open-ended, in less regulated community-based settings.
In one-sixth of all pre-K classrooms, more than 90 percent of students come from the same racial or ethnic group, whereas only one-eighth of all kindergarten classrooms has that same level of racial homogeneity. Across both grades, just one in five classrooms is highly racially diverse, with no racial or ethnic group comprising more than 50 percent of enrollment.
The system, not surprisingly, mirrors segregation in the communities where classrooms are housed. To unravel the problem of segregation, the preschool system needs to be understood in terms of the city’s rigid housing-segregation patterns, as well as its socioeconomic divisions. In the first year of the universal pre-K program, about 40 percent of students attended pre-K at regular schools or at a handful of charters, both of which are linked to standard K-12 schools.