With Albany’s passage of the state’s 2014–15 budget, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio will see his plans for universal pre-K education and an expansion of after-school middle school implemented in the five boroughs. But with significant concessions made for the accommodation of charter schools, as well as a rejection of the mayor’s preferred source of funding for the programs, the victory is qualified, and the outlook for pushing more progressive reforms in the state seems murky.
It shouldn’t be. Educational inequality in New York City runs rampant. My Nation colleague Betsy Reed has written here: “There are currently only 20,000 full-day [pre-K] spots for 68,000 eligible children. Everyone else has to either cobble together informal care or pony up for daycare, which costs an average of $13,000 per year—a sum barely manageable for most two-income households, let alone single parents. In affluent neighborhoods, the annual bill runs anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000 per child, a burden even for some families making more than $100,000 a year.” Given the near-universally acknowledged benefits of pre-K education, we should be, like Mayor de Blasio, deeply invested in providing it to NYC families.
Fortunately, some activists are. UPKNYC was launched in December 2013, and universal pre-K supporters rallied in New York and Albany in favor of de Blasio’s plan—and against Gov. Cuomo’s competing program. And while the city isn’t exactly experiencing a post-Bloomberg hangover, people are clearing the dust from their eyes to see some of the glaring deficiencies of the old regime. Reed writes, “[P]eople appear to be waking up to the fact that Bloomberg’s gilded city neglected to provide basic social services alongside the refurbished parks and gleaming condo towers, giving New York more the appearance than the reality of ‘livability.’”
It’s time to work on behalf of all New Yorkers, and we need more campaigns (and more successes) like UPKNYC to remind us that a great city needs to serve all its people, not just the few.
Still, while successful, the fight over UPK is a cautionary tale, and as the New Yorker’s John Cassidy points out, the deck is stacked against anyone who wants to make similar progressive reforms in the city. “If you want to get anything done,” he writes in an analysis of the pre-K battle, “you have to look responsible, reassure independents that you’re no dangerous radical, and cozy up to business and financial interests.” When de Blasio decided not to follow the script, he got smacked down: The mayor’s original plan of funding his pre-K and after-school programs via a temporary Personal Income Tax on the city’s top 1.4 percent of wage-earners was rejected, a victim of well-funded rage (and of future fundraising concerns for Gov. Cuomo’s reelection campaign this fall).