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Selling Pre-K: Media, Politics, and Policy in the Case of Universal Prekindergarten in New York City

by Katherine K. Delaney & Susan B. Neuman - 2018

Background/Context: Educational policy is informed by multiple stakeholders and actors. Research has focused on understanding how policy decisions are informed and made, as well as how teachers and school leaders take up these policies in their practice. However, few researchers have examined how educational policy is framed for the larger public and voting electorate through media coverage and how the use of rhetorical devices can shape the publicís understandings of policies, practices, and promised outcomes. Publicly funded prekindergarten is an emerging movement in many states.

Purpose/Objective: This research examined how local and national media framed the scale-up of publicly funded, Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) in the largest school district in the country: New York City. Across two years, including a mayoral primary, mayoral election, and high-profile state budget negotiations, we examine how six media outlets used rhetoric to create specific narratives about the goals, outcomes, and possibilities of UPK that resonated with voters.

Research Design: Qualitative methods were used to examine the content of six national and local media sources. Over 640 sources were analyzed to address the questions central to this study. Utilizing our theoretical framework of rhetorical policy analysis, as well as emergent coding, we cross-analyzed multiple themes, working to identify consistent and dominant narratives across the media coverage.

Findings: Findings reveal that four main narratives dominated the media coverage of the scale-up of pre-K in New York City. These narratives used emotional rhetoric to frame UPK in ways that detracted from meaningful, research-informed information about how to successfully support the care and learning of young children.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The role of media in framing educational policy and practice for the public is growing. Researchers and policy makers must be mindful of how the rhetorical approaches utilized by the media can and will inform the public's understanding of public education policy.

Multiple actors and stakeholders inform educational policy (Coburn, 2005; Stone, 2001). The media, in particular, play a central role in shaping voters’ understandings of, and emotional responses to, policy initiatives (Goldstein, 2011; Lutz & Abu-Lughod, 2008). Some argue that by highlighting certain aspects of policy initiatives and downplaying others, media has become a means for marketing (or selling) policy to voters at the expense of important discussions about the goals and values that are embodied in policy decisions (Hajer, 2009; Valdez, Delavan, & Freire, 2016). This is significant because how policy is framed and staged in the public mind has consequences for how policy is later enacted (Ryan & Graue, 2009).

The important role that media coverage can play in informing public understandings of educational policy was highlighted when publicly funded Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) became the premier issue in New York City’s 2014 mayoral campaign. When Bill de Blasio announced his candidacy for mayor of New York City in 2012, he highlighted greater access to UPK as a central focus of his campaign. Although the existence of UPK in the state of New York predated this campaign, its universality had been limited by state-level funding constraints (Barnett, Carolan, Fitzgerald, & Squires, 2011). When de Blasio promised UPK for all New York City four-year-olds at the start of the 2014–2015 school year, seven months after his inauguration, media coverage became focused on the policy issue. From that moment, coverage of the election and first year of Mayor de Blasio’s tenure largely centered on his plans for UPK.

Considering that early childhood education has only recently begun to garner the attention of the media, politicians, and policy makers (Brown & Wright, 2011), this intensive media focus struck us as particularly important to explore more closely. Given the growing evidence of the influence that media can have over the public’s notions about what is important when it comes to different educational policy initiatives (Gabriel & Lester, 2013; Goldstein & Chesky, 2007), we conducted a discourse analysis of UPK-related articles, opinion pieces, and editorials. Our goal was to understand how it was framed as a policy issue in New York City. To guide our analysis, we used rhetorical discourse analysis to understand the rhetorical devices used by the media to create stories and narratives that attracted the attention and passion of voters (Gottweis, 2007). Using this framework, we asked: How was the recent scale-up of UPK framed in the media? What narratives about UPK and early childhood policy dominated the media coverage? Given these frames, what elements of UPK policies were highlighted as important, and which were subverted? What are the implications of media framing of early childhood policies for public understanding, policy design, and implementation?


In the last decade, the percentage of young children enrolled in publicly funded prekindergarten (pre-K) programming has almost doubled, growing from 17% to 29% of the national population of four-year-olds (Barnett, Carolan, Squires, Clarke Brown, & Horowitz, 2015). In this article, we use the term pre-K to refer to any state- or local level publicly funded early childhood programming aimed at preschool-age (3- to 5-year-old) children. These programs may be located in either public schools or community-based childcare settings. The requirements for teacher degree level, length of day, and other factors vary by state and school district. However, the common factor among these programs is that the funding is provided by local city and/or state tax dollars, as opposed to Head Start or Title I preschools that are federally funded. The reason for this distinction is that pre-K represents a more local policy initiative, agreed on by cities and/or state legislatures, governors, and voters, reflecting both local needs and political will.

A growing body of research has attributed many outcomes to the pre-K year, including closing the achievement gap, lowering incarceration rates, lowering teen pregnancy rates, closing the educational opportunity gap, and improving future earnings (Heckman & Masterov, 2004; Yoshikawa et al., 2013). Although some studies have shown lesser or modest effects on academic outcomes over time (Barnett, 1995; Currie, 2001; Lipsey, 2014), there is mounting evidence that children who experience high-quality pre-K have better social/emotional outcomes (Gormley, Gayer, Phillips, & Dawson, 2005; Gormley, Phillips, Newmark, Welti, & Adelstein, 2011) and that academic outcomes are highly influenced by the quality of the programming offered (Lipsey, 2014; Yoshikawa, et al., 2013).

In addition to child outcomes, pre-K programs meet another need: for affordable, high-quality childcare for working families. According to 2014 U.S. census data, between half and three quarters of mothers of infants, toddlers, and preschool-age children work outside the home, a number that has risen substantially over the past 25 years. For many low- and middle-income families, the costs of early education and care either currently do, or quickly will, outstrip personal earnings (Ertas & Shields, 2012). As a result, providing high-quality comprehensive early childhood care and education that can improve child outcomes and support working parents has become a pressing issue for many voters (Campbell, 2012; Curran, 2015). This, in turn, has drawn the attention of policy makers and politicians who believe that universal pre-K programs could fill this constituent need. Given this confluence of factors, many policy makers and politicians have supported using public funds to promote pre-K programs (White, Davidson, Millar, Pandy, & Yi, 2015).

Similarly, at the federal level, President Obama stated in his 2012 inauguration speech that state and national policy makers and politicians needed to focus on creating opportunities for “high-quality pre-K” for all children. Framing pre-K as a progressive initiative to support children and families, his administration advocated for the funding and expansion of these programs at the state level. Several Race to the Top initiatives were specifically designed to foster state support for the expansion of pre-K programming. In fact, in the mid-2010s, pre-K became a part of many progressive political campaigns, particularly in large urban centers, including Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Other, less political, figures have also been drawing attention to the need for pre-K. In public service announcements, Shakira (a well-known Latina singer/songwriter) has been appealing to both Spanish- and English-speaking communities to lobby for and support pre-K initiatives in the United States and Latin America. Similarly, actress Cynthia Nixon and basketball star Kevin Johnson have made public statements about the need for pre-K programming and supported state-level candidates who advocate for pre-K programming. This growing attention to a “need” for pre-K is raising public awareness about early childhood education policies in the United States.

Research indicates that how media coverage frames policy issues plays a central role in constructing notions of the importance, scope, and necessity of the proposed initiative in the public mind (Hajer, 2009). As a result, how this pre-K feedback loop between policy advocates and designers, politicians, and constituents is informed will largely depend on the ways in which pre-K is framed in the public mind. This article examines how this framing played out in the case of New York City and the 2014 mayoral election.


What informs policy decisions? Is it simply the goals and intentions, and then the method of implementation? This is the traditional, rational actor approach to policy analysis (Stone, 2001; Sutton & Levinson, 2001). However, a growing body of research indicates that how policy is framed has a great deal of influence on the ways in which the public understands and exhibits support for policies affecting their daily lives (Coburn, 2006; Weiss, 1989). Successful framing of a policy initiative can mean the difference between rallying overwhelming public support, and seeing the initiative fail to capture the public imagination (Gottweis, 2012). From this perspective, finding a “conceptual hook” is key to successful policy framing. This engaging and motivating concept or idea creates emotional resonance between individuals, their values/concerns, and the policy being proposed. Once this hook is established and the public support assured, policy makers can then articulate a specific solution or plan (the actual policy) and rely on the emotional good will of the public as the policy is implemented (Gottweis, 2007).

Understanding how educational policy initiatives are framed through media coverage is particularly important when we consider that policy decisions require careful deliberation and consideration in order to make sure that what policies emerge are ones that create meaningful educational opportunities for children (Ryan & Graue, 2009). This study exists in this space between how policy choices are informed and made, and how media coverage can frame and  inform public understandings of pre-K policy and practice.


Both politicians and the media have recognized the powerful nature of persuasive narratives and performative acts, such as a story or a bold figure that can draw the attention of voters to some aspects of policy and away from others (Hajer, 2009; Lutz & Abu-Lughod, 2008). In this article, we use the framework of rhetorical discourse analysis as a means for understanding how the media uses these devices to frame and direct the attention, knowledge, and emotions of voters around policy issues (Coburn, 2005; Gottweis, 2007). Discourse analysis allows researchers to identify broader narratives, often in the forms of story and metaphor, to help the public make sense of public policy. Rhetorical discourse analysis builds on this, focusing on how specific linguistic devices, grounded in rhetoric, are used to frame policy for public consumption. This framework can help us to better understand the ways in which policy is informed and framed by groups (media, advocacy groups) and individuals (politicians, public figures) that have the power to direct discourses and public understandings of policy. This focus on the tools of argumentation (rhetoric) allows researchers to identify the powerful discourses that are used to frame policy, without reducing the complexity of the broader systems in which policy is informed and formed.

Rhetoric is constituted by ethos, pathos, and logos, three forms of argumentation first named and defined in the classical works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Sophists. The first two, ethos and pathos, represent the emotional (illogical) modes of persuasion. Ethos is the persuasive power that is embodied in a charismatic leader, one who shows distinct authority to spread his message. Pathos is the power of an emotionally charged narrative that the common people (i.e., voters) can identify with via their lived experiences. Logos, in contrast, is the reasoned argument, informed by research, knowledge, and experience. This type of argumentation eschews emotion in favor of fact. For example, etho-pathetic rhetoric and argumentation directs the public’s attention to a charismatic (for good or ill) leader and the powerful narrative filled with emotion that she/he delivers. This often has a much greater influence than traditional policy analysis wishes to recognize or concede (Gabriel & Lester, 2013). In any mode of argumentation, elements of each are in use, though the author/speaker usually foregrounds one device. Because voters often choose policy based on their emotional responses to these kinds of argumentation, rhetorical devices must be considered when we work to make sense of policy formation.

Using this approach as an initial framework for analyzing our data, we aim to better understand how persuasive narratives about UPK were constructed through the media coverage, what elements of publicly funded early childhood educational policies were highlighted and subverted in this coverage, and what costs such framing of UPK might have for the educational experiences of young children.


On entering the Democratic primary as a mayoral candidate in the 2013–2014 election, Bill de Blasio proposed to make UPK truly universal in New York City. This plan for New York City children was projected to nearly double citywide UPK enrollment, from approximately 36,000 in the 2013–2014 school year to nearly 73,000 by the 2015–2016 school year (Potter, 2015). As a result, in 2015–2016, UPK enrollment in NYC alone was projected to represent over 54% of statewide enrollment.

The scale-up and implementation of UPK policy took place across three distinct time periods between October 2012 and October 2014. The first period began in October 2012, when de Blasio first proposed the idea of universalizing UPK for all NYC children via a tax (“the cost of a soy latte a day”) on residents with incomes greater than $500,000. During this period, which encompassed both the Democratic primary and the campaign for mayor, the call for expanding UPK through the citywide high earner tax became the central campaign issue highlighted in the media, setting Bill de Blasio apart from other candidates. It also reflected his progressive and populist political bent.

The second period immediately followed Bill de Blasio’s installation as mayor on January 1, 2014. During this period, to March 13, 2014, Mayor de Blasio, Governor Cuomo, and the state assembly were at odds over funding for UPK, with the state standing in the way of the mayor’s plan for a high earner tax, and the mayor holding a perceived mandate from voters for UPK. Eventually the governor and state assembly agreed to provide the $540 million a year for five years needed to support universalizing UPK in NYC.

Finally, the third period of the scale-up of UPK was the implementation period, which started when state funding was secured in March 2014 through the close of UPK enrollment in October 2014. During this period, the focus shifted from political support and financing to the logistics of doubling citywide enrollment in UPK at community-based childcare centers, public schools, and even libraries.

It is within these three periods that we examine how specific narratives and discourses about UPK were framed by politicians and promoted by the media, and how these arguments were constructed to promote certain aspects of the UPK policy.


We used qualitative methods, specifically content analysis, to research and analyze our data. These methods are based on our belief that the interaction of many actors, elements, contexts, and arguments creates a site of praxis from which policy practices emerge.


We collected media coverage of the UPK scale-up from six newspapers and their accompanying websites. These six sources included three national sources (Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times) and three local sources (NY1, New York Post, and New York Daily News). Two of our national sources, Wall Street Journal and New York Times, also provide regional coverage for New York City and the greater metropolitan area. These media sources were chosen to represent a cross-section of newspapers/news sites that are read by public audiences at varied points on the political spectrum (Pew Research Center, 2014) and are the primary print/online modes through which residents and voters within New York City were consuming coverage of the scale-up of UPK, thus playing important roles in mediating information for public consumption.

Our data collection was bounded by a specific time frame. We began collecting media coverage in October 2012, when the participants in the New York City mayoral election first began mentioning UPK as a campaign issue, and ending in October 2014, when enrollment closed for the first year of the UPK scale-up. We used a predetermined set of search terms to allow us to collect only those articles pertaining to UPK within the context of New York City. Using a Boolean search approach, we paired the following key terms: “prek” AND “New York”, “pre-k” AND “New York”, and “UPK” AND “New York.” Using these search terms for each media site, our initial searches returned over 900 articles (see Table 1).

Table 1. Initial Data Set


National/ Local Coverage

Political Position of Source

Number of Sources

Wall Street Journal


Right of Center


Washington Post


Left of Center


New York Times




New York 1 (NY1)




New York Post




New York Daily News


Right of Center






We downloaded the articles, including any pictures or graphics, and uploaded them to NVivo10 (Bazeley & Jackson, 2013). From these files, we conducted a cursory overview of each document, discarding the following types of documents: letters to the editor, blog posts by readers, and articles that focused on public pre-K outside of New York City because they were unfiltered by the media sources we were examining. Because our focus was on how media framed the scale-up of UPK, we included only those sources directly from articles, editorial endorsements, and opinion/editorial by the media sources (Goldstein, 2011). In total, 649 individual sources were identified (see Table 2). This final data set included a broad cross section of local, national, and editorial media coverage of the scale-up of UPK.

Table 2. Final Data Set


Number of Articles

Number of Op/Eds

Total Sources Included in Data







Wall Street Journal






Washington Post






New York Times






New York 1 (NY1)






New York Post






New York Daily News









In NVivo10, we assigned attributes by source type (e.g., local, national, Op-Ed, and article), creating cases by source origin. This allowed us to sort and look across our data set during our data analysis.


We used discourse analysis to examine our data. We wanted to understand the ways in which the language, including the structures of text and the contexts of the language (Gee, 1992), reflected certain values and points of view aimed to influence the public’s understandings of the UPK scale-up (Sutton & Levinson, 2001). To do this, we coded each article by idea level. Chunks of text were bracketed according to the particular idea used to frame the argument. For example:

[De Blasio’s scheme is this: Hike income taxes by 13.8 percent on New Yorkers

making above half a million dollars annually.] [Ethos/Paying for UPK]

[He’d create 10,000 new pre-K slots, too.] [Logos/Number of seats]


five years, de Blasio would let this tax surcharge lapse, and — he says —

find another way to pay.] [Logos/Paying for UPK]

(New York Post, September 3, 2013)

Using the typology of rhetoric (Gottweis, 2006), we began our analysis by initially coding each article into the argumentation devices identified in the framework: ethos, logos, and pathos. Simultaneous to this coding, we also began coding our data into what we identified as “emergent” codes specific to the proposed scale-up of UPK. These emergent codes were discussed and verified in weekly meetings between the authors. When necessary, emergent codes were merged, broken apart, or discarded. An example of this is when we noted two emergent codes both referring to “Funds/Funding” of UPK (“High Earner Tax” and “City vs. State Funding”). We subsequently determined that these codes should be nested as child (sub) codes under the broader “Funds/Funding” code. This strategy allowed us to see both the larger narratives of “Funds/Funding” and how these narratives played out in more subtle ways as well. A coded article is included in Appendix A to highlight our analytic approach.

These coding structures (see Table 3) represent a complex web of interrelated coding and categorization that allowed us to recognize both broader argumentation and unique narratives about UPK being carved out through the media coverage. Per Charmaz (2006), this oscillation between open and focused analytical procedures is central to an interpretive and grounded approach to data analysis.

Table 3. Sample Source Coding

Emergent Code


Rhetorical Code


Progressive Proxy

Bold Plan


Dark Horse

“That’s what makes de Blasio’s plan for pre-K so important, both for New Yorkers and as a model for how we can and should invest forward and fund our principles.” (Washington Post, 01/24/2014)

“And while the crowd was dotted with celebrity supporters—not to mention the speaking program—it also had an everyman quality. De Blasio and his family arrived by subway; a thousand tickets were given away to the public.” (NY1, 01/01/2014)

“Mr. de Blasio’s campaign for mayor may be the ultimate test of Brooklyn’s might. It has been 40 years since New York City sent a Brooklyn resident to Gracie Mansion—Abraham D. Beame, who was elected to a single, tumultuous term in 1973.”(New York Times, 05/21/2013)







High Earner Tax

City vs. State


“He is proposing to tax some of the wealthiest New Yorkers to pay for [UPK]. But first, he needs Albany lawmakers to sign off on the plan.” (NY1, 05/20/2013)

“Mayor de Blasio is throwing down the gauntlet to Gov. Cuomo on expanding pre-K, claiming he’s got 29,000 new seats ready to go for September—if Albany approves his funding plan.” (New York Post, 02/26/2014)





Social Justice

Educational Inequality

Tale of Two Cities

“Pre-K may be important, Mayor de Blasio, but then what? Too many elementary and middle schools are performing at a low level. It follows, therefore, that any gains that may result from the pre-K experience are likely to be lost by the third grade—and certainly by middle school.” (New York Post, 04/08/2014)

“Two people close to de Blasio have told me that the mayor believes it’s important to raise taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents regardless of the pre-K fight. Social justice is the new mantra in City Hall and the easiest way to look like you’re bridging the income gap is by raising taxes on millionaires.” (NY1, 01/06/2014)







Outsider/ Insider

Doing Battle

“Judging by a recent surge in the polls, Bill de Blasio has profited handsomely from his long-cultivated stance as the ‘anti-Bloomberg’ outsider candidate in the Democratic mayoral primary.” (New York Times, 09/02/2013)

“The battle lines over pre-K promise to be one of the most contentious areas of the governor’s financial plan, which was crafted with his political needs in mind as he runs for reelection.” (New York Daily News, 01/21/2014)




Three trained research assistants independently coded a random sample of articles (65 data points, or approximately 10% of our sample) to validate our coding scheme. Comparing our coding, there was 87% agreement in assigning a given code.

We then used the matrix query function of NVivo10 to examine how our rhetorical and emergent codes related to one another (see Appendix B). We used this function to examine the connection between the theoretical codes that we started our analyses with and the emergent codes that we populated together. We used the matrix analysis to verify and triangulate the code that we had begun to identify, seeking disconfirming examples in our coding as a means for validating (Lather, 2003) our coding structure and decision-making in coding across the two sets of codes. As we began to identify narrative themes across our data set, we used memo writing to begin populating these initial findings. The process of memo writing was a central part of our analysis (Saldaña, 2014).

Our focus on language, discourse, and symbolism is reflective of our overall theoretical perspective that understandings of policy in the public mind are informed by the intersections of many contexts, narratives, actors, emotions, and forms of knowledge (Coburn, 2005; Gee, 1992). We also used techniques to warrant the claims of our findings. In addition to coding a random sampling of our data to test our reliability, we actively sought cases within our data set that would disconfirm the narratives we identified in our analyses. To do this, we randomly sampled articles across our data set and analyzed these articles against our identified narratives, questioning how and if they fit. The goal was to understand our identified narratives across our diverse data sources, gaining credibility for our findings as they remained consistent and reliable in our cross-analyses (Lather, 2003; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Additionally, we also looked for cases where the persuasive narrative themes were being countered with information seeking to inform, rather than persuade, the public about the scale-up of UPK.

Important to this study is our own positionality in this research. Both of us have extensive training in early childhood education and policy analysis. At the time we began this study, De Blasio’s campaign for UPK was in full force in NYC beginning in 2012. It provided an opportunity to examine the tone of the media coverage and how UPK policies were being framed in the extensive coverage during the campaign.


In this section, we describe the narratives that we identified from our rhetorical analysis. We then consider what elements of UPK policy were subverted given the dominance of the narrative themes we identified. Finally, we consider what implications this may have for pre-K policies and practices going forward, as well as for how pre-K and pre-K policy are framed in the public mind. We identified four main narratives in the media framing of the scale-up of UPK. These narratives focus on UPK as: (i) logistics, (ii) social justice, (iii) progressive proxy, and, finally, (iv) a story of heroes and villains. In this section, we examine these narratives, looking closely at primary examples from our data set.


The “logistics” narrative framed the UPK scale-up as a plan that largely centered on the funding and expansion of UPK. From this perspective, the media drew attention to the mechanisms for and logistics of UPK: how much funding and how to get it, and the number of seats, teachers and sites, and materials that would be needed for each classroom.

During the primary and mayoral elections, the media focus was on Bill de Blasio’s goal to create a citywide tax on high income earners in order to fund the UPK within New York City. Described as “pie-in-the-sky,” “bold,” “foolish,” “impossible,” and “inspired,” this mechanism for funding UPK garnered a great deal more attention from the press than the policies of UPK. Central in this narrative was who should pay for UPK and how the funds should be secured for long-term planning and expansion. Headlines and coverage of the proposed scale-up of UPK during this period read, “Bill Thompson [Democratic primary rival to Bill de Blasio] Derides Bill de Blasio’s Prekindergarten Expansion Plans as ‘Pretend’ as Democratic Mayoral Primary Approaches” and “Albany Cold to City Taxes for Pre-K: School Proposal by de Blasio Faces Legislative Opposition.” The focus of these headlines, the accompanying articles, and opinion pieces during this period was on paying for UPK. Should it be wealthy residents of NYC (“De Blasio Hits Rich With Bill For Pre-K”)? Or should it be families (“Crushed by the Cost of Child Care”)? Or should it be the state (“Bloomberg and de Blasio Offer Clashing Views on Fiscal Future”)?

Once funding was secured via the state budget on March 29, 2014, media attention turned to the logistical issues of finding enough “seats” for all children who wanted to participate. Once again the headlines rang with a sense of urgency: “No Easy Task in Bid to Find Seats for Pre-K” and “City to Add Thousands of Public School Seats as Part of Universal Pre-K Initiative.” Pointing out how difficult it was going to be to locate and approve “seats” once again created a sense of urgency and anxiety about the scale-up of UPK.

In this narrative, the scale-up of UPK was framed as a logistical struggle for “seats” or “teachers” and obscured the bigger policy issues of regarding curriculum, pedagogy, and best practices. One Wall Street Journal article in particular encapsulated this view: “Pre-K Plans Set a High Bar—Mayor Secured $300 Million in Funding, but Now Comes the Hard Part” (04/06/2014). This “hardest part” of UPK was finding enough seats for children, rather than the work that would occur within the classroom.

The targeted media focus on logistical and structural elements continued as the newly funded UPK classrooms prepared to open in September 2014. Beginning in early June, the media began to focus intensively on the health inspections and contracts needed for community-based childcare centers in order to add classrooms and “seats” to accommodate increased enrollment. This coverage, across our sources, focused on a supposed failure of the city to fully inspect and license many (if not most) of the community-based childcare sites that would be providing UPK classrooms, continuing the focus on logistics in a new direction: “ The office of Comptroller Scott M. Stringer said Wednesday night in a news release that the Education Department had delivered only 141 of more than 500 contracts for review, despite repeated requests for the documents” (New York Times, 08/27/2014). Local politicians joined in the refrain, mostly following the lead of the media coverage. The narrative was that violations had been hidden from families, therefore making UPK classrooms and sites inherently unsafe.

The reality of the situation, however, was that contracts for new UPK sites and classrooms were not being issued until all violations had been addressed and remediated, and sites were reinspected. Because violations ranged in severity—from a trashcan without a top, to a child’s lunch bag that did not have a date stamp on it, to pest problems, to unresolved issues with background checks—clearing up violations took a great deal of time. As a result, the delivery of contracts was delayed by detailed attention to and remediation of issues that might actually present safety concerns for children and families.

However, the media narrative linked these logistical elements to broader emotional discourses about whether sites were “ready” or even “safe” for children. This tight focus on logistical issues framed UPK as the series of events that led up to the children entering the classroom, drawing attention from what would happen once the children arrived and engaged in educational experiences. The intensive media focus on the logistics of the UPK scale-up constructed a narrative that foregrounded the how (the funding, the availability of seats, the hiring of teachers, and the delivery of materials) of UPK as the most important policy elements for the public to consider. As a result, the educational elements of what happened within the classrooms once the children and teachers arrived were largely ignored in the media coverage when compared with safety violations, ready materials, and enough seats.


Social justice was the second narrative that ran through the media coverage of UPK. Within this narrative, UPK was framed as a program that, once scaled up, would address and remediate issues of social, income, and educational inequality within the city of New York. Given the different political perspectives of our media sources, the way that this social justice narrative was constructed and conceptualized was slightly different across our sources. However, the use of social justice as a rhetorical device was consistent across our data. For example, editorials and articles in the Washington Post, New York Times, and New York 1 (three left-leaning sources) touted the scale-up of UPK as a centrally important way to address the income gap that exists between high- and low-income families in New York City:

De Blasio wants to offer preschool to every 4-year-old in the city, aiming to narrow the achievement gap between low-income children and their more affluent peers. (Washington Post, 11/08/2013)

Of all the ways to reduce inequality, none is more important than giving poor children access to good schools — including, but not limited to, pre-K. (Washington Post, 01/02/2014)

From this perspective, universalizing UPK was an important means for addressing existing issues of inequality within New York City. This was not just due to the funding mechanism of a tax on high-income earners, though this Robin Hood plan did have a certain ironic resonance with voters. Rather, the high earner tax was a component of the social justice story around UPK: that investing in the youngest and most vulnerable members of our society would be a means of shifting their life trajectories.

This tall order, placed squarely at the feet of UPK teachers across the city, however, rarely considered what other issues, including many already embedded within the NYC public educational system, created these inequalities. How this single year of schooling might produce these changes was unclear. Regardless, this narrative of UPK as a means for addressing larger issues of inequality was a highly persuasive and emotionally charged frame that ran through most of the left-leaning media coverage. UPK as social justice, which was also rhetoric repeatedly used by the de Blasio campaign, was a uniting message for left-leaning voters, bringing together a broad base of support across lower-, working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class constituencies.

Among the more conservative media sources analyzed in this study, the connection between UPK and social justice was also a central narrative, though the tone was highly critical rather than laudatory. Using the frame of social justice to question the true motivations of the scale-up of UPK, the conservative media positioned the expansion of UPK via a higher earner tax as class warfare:

Many appear to have turned to Mr. de Blasio. His constant attacks on Ms. Quinn seem to have taken a toll. He has sold himself as a clear break from Mr. Bloomberg who will reduce inequality by raising taxes on the rich while still managing to appeal to upper middle class voters in places like brownstone Brooklyn—perhaps because they would see reduced child-care bills if his signature proposal, universal prekindergarten, is implemented. (Wall Street Journal, 09/09/2013)

And that gets to de Blasio’s claims that his programs are the Holy Grail and the silver bullet all in one. Inequality, poverty, crime, joblessness—he suggests the programs will fix everything. Even allowing for rookie hyperbole, this is nonsense. (New York Post, 04/02/2014)

In addition, the social justice narrative across the more conservative media sources was used as a way to highlight the misguided allegiance of liberal voters and politicians and a way to undermine charter schools:

Once again, Mayor de Blasio confirms his vision for pre-K was never about improving the lives of needy children. It was about using kids to pursue class warfare. . . . On Friday, Mayor Bill and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced that they plan to redirect $210 million away from charter public schools to traditional public schools. . . . Basically, what this means is that money that would’ve gone for the expansion of successful charter schools will go to build more pre-kindergarten seats at the traditional public schools. (New York Post, 02/02/2014)

Using de Blasio’s efforts to regulate and charge rent to charter schools as a sign that he was in fact undoing existing efforts to address educational inequality, the New York Post and Daily News framed the links between UPK and social justice as further evidence of class warfare.

When the state stepped forward to fund the costs of scaling up UPK, putting to bed the issue of the high earner tax (and including protections for charter schools), these actions, rather than the UPK scale-up, were framed as social justice:

The budget approved by [the] state Senate . . . would right a longstanding wrong by providing charters the money they need to buy, build or rent physical space. This is a major step toward full funding equity for charter schools, which currently get about 70% of the state funds traditional district schools receive. If it becomes state law, de Blasio would have a choice: Allow charters to share space, rent-free, in district school buildings — or pay them facilities money so they can find that space on the private market. Other important provisions would give charters access to state building aid and let them offer pre-K services. (New York Daily News, 03/16/2014)

The rhetoric of social justice was a highly engaging and emotional narrative. For example, several of our sources highlighted UPK supporters who had voted and rallied for the proposed scale-up but then also found themselves wrapped up in the idea of how keeping charter schools from participating in UPK cut both ways when it came to social justice:

 “Under the new administration, I feel as though he falsified what he was representing. He said that he was representing the 99 percent. However, he wants to take away what is our most precious commodity, which is part of the 99 percent,” said Robin Williams, a charter school supporter. (NY1, 02/04/2014)

Part of the reason for this is that charter schools represent a difficult space in the public education conversation in NYC. Many traditional public schools are underperforming, and disproportionately, these schools are in low-income, non-White neighborhoods. As a result, charter schools have played an important, if controversial, role in giving lower- and working-class parents choices aside from a failing neighborhood school. When the role of charter schools in providing UPK emerged, liberal and conservative conceptions of what constituted “social justice” clashed. All of our media sources capitalized on this conflict, highlighting equity and inequality as centrally tied to the question of UPK.


The third narrative was that of UPK as a proxy for progressivism. In this narrative, the scale-up of UPK was framed as less about early childhood education and more as a sign of the shifting politics in NYC, New York state, and the country. The support of pre-K policies, set on the national stage in President Obama’s 2012 inauguration speech, was suddenly framed as a key component of any progressive political movement or campaign. During the mayoral campaign in New York City, the use of UPK as a proxy for progressive political allegiances and policies was particularly striking:

Mr. de Blasio’s campaign platform is unabashedly interventionist and progressive. His most eye-catching plan would raise the income tax rate to 4.3 percent from 3.87 percent on earnings of over $500,000, to pay for universal access to prekindergarten. (New York Times, 08/04/2013)

When it comes to supporting a tax on wealthier New Yorkers to fund pre-K and after school programs, Klein says he will be there to help shepherd it through the senate. . . . The new progressive mandate in the city is already putting pressure on. . .Democrats in the senate. (NY1, 11/18/2013)

Across the three key time periods, the media used the “UPK as progressive proxy” narrative in related but specific ways. In the first time period, during the mayoral campaign, the narrative supported the media’s attempts to distinguish between the initially many Democratic candidates (who supported UPK and to what extent). In the second phase, the narrative was used to frame Bill de Blasio’s efforts to gain stable state support for funding UPK as a sign of progressive policy-making. Finally, in the third phase, once state funding was secured and the scale-up was under way, the narrative shifted to be framed as the citizens’ rejection of nearly two decades of Republican control of New York City, as well as an example of more progressive reforms to come.

As with the social justice narrative, how the progressive proxy narrative was conceptualized varied by the political bent of the media source. For our conservative media sources, UPK and the costs and efforts associated with scaling up the program became signs of what this so-called progressivism was really about—a money grab:

Our mayor believes he is writing a new progressive future for New York City, with bold new programs, such as universal pre-K. But the hard reality is this: As the costs of promises made to the city’s workers continue to increase faster than the city’s ability to pay for them, progressives are going to find themselves presiding over a system trying desperately paying more and more for the past—at the expense of funding the future. (New York Post, 08/09/2014)

It doesn’t matter that preschool education studies, like the one released by the Obama administration in 2012, have found “no significant impacts” in education from programs like Head Start. None of this matters to progressives because the students aren’t their highest priority. (Wall Street Journal, 07/17/2014)

In this coverage, UPK was framed as a progressive policy because it would cost taxpayers a great deal and have little to show for the expenditure. The more liberal media sources, however, framed the voter and state funding support for the scale-up of UPK as possibly heralding other progressive policies that would now get attention. For example, coverage of President Obama’s endorsement was framed as an “anointing” of Bill de Blasio as a leading progressive:

No doubt, he can claim a mandate on the central themes of his campaign: to trim stop, question and frisk; to move away from Mayor Bloomberg’s aggressive education reforms; and to establish universal pre-kindergarten financed by a tax on the wealthy. (New York Daily News, 11/05/2013)

President Obama enthusiastically endorsed mayoral front-runner Bill de Blasio on Monday—in sharp contrast to his lukewarm backing of Democratic underdog Bill Thompson four years ago. (New York Post, 09/23/2014)

This reflects how the narrative was used to distinguish de Blasio from the other democratic candidates for mayor in the early months of the mayoral campaign. It was his progressive policies, and in particular UPK, that set him apart and made him the progressive candidate in the campaign.

Reflecting the second phase of the UPK scale-up, the narrative remained focused on progressivism, framing de Blasio’s continued focus on UPK following the campaign as evidence of his truly progressive intentions:

[T]he refrain of Bill de Blasio’s inaugural address, as he doubled down on his  progressive themes Wednesday, assuring New York his plan to combat rising inequality was more than just campaign rhetoric. De Blasio got specific, vowing to expand paid sick leave, require developers to build more affordable housing, fight hospital closures, reform stop and frisk and ask the wealthy to pay more taxes to fund universal pre-K, noting those earning between $500,000 and $1 million a year would see taxes rise, on average, by $973 a year. (NY1, 01/01/2014)

Once state funding was secured in March 2014, the progressive nature of UPK policy continued to be a central narrative of the coverage. In particular, Governor Cuomo’s rejection of the higher income earner tax that had been the mayor’s original plan was framed as a rejection of the progressive ideals that de Blasio’s campaign had embodied:

At a time when Democrats everywhere are seeking to diminish economic inequality, Cuomo, who is running for a second term as governor, has adopted policies that would only widen the economic gaps. . . . He rebuffed the efforts of New York City’s new Democratic mayor, Bill de Blasio, to levy a tax on residents making more than $500,000 a year to fund a citywide pre-kindergarten program. (He did allow the state to provide funding for such a program, but its ongoing revenue stream is uncertain.) (Washington Post, 04/16/2014)

The narrative of UPK as a proxy for progressivism and as a site for meaning-making about political allegiance and future changes created an emotional identification between this educational policy and a particular political stance. UPK was framed as a political litmus test within the context of NYC. This proxy status storyline directed public attention away from UPK as an educational policy and toward the idea that UPK represented a broader, progressive agenda.


Perhaps the most present narrative across all the media coverage of UPK was the rhetorical trope of the hero and the villain. This included the characterization of different individuals and actors (usually political ones) “doing battle” either for or against the scale-up of UPK. Here we examine two examples of this frame. The first is through the media coverage of the efforts to garner funds to support UPK. The second is through the media coverage of the licensing and opening of an unprecedented number of classrooms in community-based childcare centers.

In the first example, Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo were characterized as “locked in a battle,” “fighting,” and “scrapping” over how to fund, and to what extent, the scale-up of UPK. Who played the role of hero and villain depended largely on the media source. For the New York Times, NY1, and the Washington Post, Mayor de Blasio was usually the hero:

Even as he came under escalating attacks from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Legislature for his stance toward charter schools, Mayor Bill de Blasio on Thursday stepped closer to securing state financing to expand prekindergarten in New York City. The progress came with a caveat: Instead of a tax increase on wealthy residents that he said was the only reliable source of funding, the mayor’s prekindergarten plan appears almost certain to be financed with state money. At the same time, he came under heightened pressure over charter schools from lawmakers. (New York Times, 03/13/2014)

De Blasio’s previous call to pay for this by raising taxes on those making over $500,000 a year was sabotaged by Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo, a stalwart of the Wall Street wing of the party, but de Blasio still got much of the money he sought. (Washington Post, 04/15/2014)

In contrast, our more conservative sources framed Mayor de Blasio as relentless and unwilling to compromise—and not in a good way. Even with state funding likely secured, de Blasio was painted as a villain willing to force a higher earner tax at any cost, even the cost of the scale-up of UPK:

Mayor de Blasio and Gov. Cuomo were on a collision course Monday over taxes—with de Blasio declaring that he won’t abandon his plan to tax the rich even if the state funds the universal pre-kindergarten classes that he’s been pushing. (New York Post, 01/07/2014)

The clash between Gov. Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio over pre-K funding is turning into an all-out brawl, with allies of the governor claiming the mayor is pushing higher taxes to fund new contracts for his labor buddies, sources told The Post. (New York Post, 01/25/2014)

Once Governor Cuomo secured state funding for the scale-up of UPK in the budget, as well as protections for charter schools in terms of hosting UPK classrooms and guaranteed space in public school buildings, he was held up as the true hero of UPK for “killing” the high earner tax and protecting charter schools:

The plan is a rebuke to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who criticized co-locations as “not democratic” and once vowed the city would force charters in public spaces to pay the city rent. The budget deal reached late Friday by Gov. Cuomo and legislative leaders will also provide $340 million in state money for pre-kindergarten classes for each of the next two years, with $300 million of that going to city schools. (New York Post, 03/30/2014)

A second example of the hero/villain rhetoric was during the implementation phase in the run up to the advent of the 2014–2015 school year. As we noted earlier, the “search” for public school and community-based “seats” for soon-to-arrive four-year-olds was a main story across our media sources. Within this context, our conservative sources identified the hero of the day as city comptroller Scott Stringer. In an article entitled, “Kindergarten Cop,” the New York Post editorial board, less than a week before the advent of the school year, wrote:

 [W]e’re glad to see Comptroller Scott Stringer calling the mayor to task because his Department of Education still hasn’t submitted more than 70 percent of its pre-K contracts to the comptroller’s office for the required vetting. . . . We’ve been skeptical on whether universal pre-K is the educational panacea the mayor insists it is. But if it’s to be done, it should be done properly. Kudos to Scott Stringer—a pre-K supporter—for doing his job and holding the mayor’s feet to the fire. (New York Post, 08/29/2014)

In another article pointing to “alarming red flags,” the New York Daily News similarly positioned Stringer as a heroic gatekeeper against the criminal underworld of early childhood education:

When schools open their doors Sept. 4, parents will be sending their kids to many programs that have not yet been independently reviewed by Controller Scott Stringer. . . . Eight days before school starts, the Education Department has sent just 141 of more than 500 universal prekindergarten contracts to the city controller’s office—and some of those submitted have raised alarming red flags. (New York Daily News, 08/27/2014)

The media framing of comptroller Scott Stringer as the main figure standing between four-year-olds and calamity in UPK classrooms, and Mayor de Blasio as the lackadaisical mayor willing to endanger lives, was both nonsensical and overtly sensational. In reality, the role of the comptroller is neither to evaluate nor validate contracts, but rather to make sure that the required paperwork is present and accounted for so that contract payments can be made. From the narrative of Stringer as hero, however, this is neither clear nor honestly presented. It is, however, emotionally charged and engaging, and it transformed UPK into a fascinating battleground.

Similarly, the New York Times held up the successful scale-up of UPK as a sign of Mayor de Blasio’s fulfillment of his biggest campaign promise and heroic efforts to ensure the universality of UPK:

The start of public school on Thursday in New York City should be the usual merry scramble of chattering children and stressed (or relieved) parents. There will also be something new: a fresh crop of 4-year-olds, more than 50,000, embarking on the first day of free, full-day, citywide, city-run prekindergarten.   It’s worth pausing to note what an accomplishment this is. . . . It is a milestone of education reform. . . . No other city has done something so big, so quickly, and it would not have happened but for Bill de Blasio. (New York Times, 09/01/2014)

Reported only days apart, which actor is the villain and which is the hero stands in stark contrast, as do conceptualizations of the readiness of the scale-up. Strikingly visible, however, is the narrative of heroes and villains with regard to the scale-up of UPK.


Looking across our large data set, we found only a handful (27 to be exact) of instances in which what would happen within UPK classrooms (in terms of teacher support and development, curricular choices, and approaches to pedagogy) was considered within the media coverage. These moments, which involved what must happen within early childhood classrooms in order to meet the expectations and goals being imposed from without, largely appeared in editorial pieces. Not surprisingly, these editorial pieces were usually written by early childhood researchers, policy researchers, and early childhood teacher-educators, or by editors who interviewed them and/or read their work:

With the introduction of universal pre-K in New York City, we have created a new entry point into our public school system. This raises a key question: What do we want our children’s first experiences in school to be? What does a good education look like for 4-year-olds? (New York Times, 10/21/2014)

A few weeks ago, I talked with Ian Rowe, the chief executive of Public Prep, who runs five public charter schools in New York City with an impressive record with low-income children. He took me on a deep wonk dive. “The prekindergarten has to be vertically aligned with the rest of the school,” he said. “It can’t be a disconnected educational experience, as it most often is. You need in pre-K a playfully rich cognitively demanding program. That is not easy.” True enough. (New York Times, 04/02/2014)

These “deep wonk dive[s]” were rare in the media coverage of the scale-up of UPK. In our analyses, we found that little media coverage was focused on what is known about how pre-K can support and prepare young children for both school and social experiences after the four-year-old year. Although researchers are deeply engaged in these conversations and the research that will enable us to better understand how to provide high-quality early childhood experiences, the complexity and nuance of these conversations did not appear in the media coverage of the UPK scale-up. We discuss the implications of this and the four main narratives that framed the UPK scale-up in the next section.

The media coverage of the scale-up of UPK was dominated by narratives that foregrounded emotional argumentation and deemphasized policy-related discussions about the education of young children in UPK programming. This pathos-dominated narrative around the scale-up of UPK was constructed by and through political campaigns and the media. Explorations of what might make UPK a truly successful program for young children were rarely undertaken. Only a tiny fraction of the media coverage addressed what might happen within UPK classrooms and how it might support children’s development.

From our findings, we were struck by the overtly emotional rhetorical tone of much of the coverage. Perhaps this was a result of the scale-up of UPK emerging in the midst of a political primary campaign, where Mayor de Blasio was framed as the charismatic leader from which pre-K policy would emerge. Regardless, the most meaningful conversations about UPK were not framed by the media in ways that engaged the public mind to consider good practice in early childhood classrooms. Within the context of the scale-up, too many questions of educational policy were left unasked, unanswered, and, as a result, unconsidered by the general public. Here we list just a few that remain unanswered and unconsidered, even at the close of the second year of scaled-up UPK in New York City:

How will UPK resolve issues of inequality?  

Is access to UPK enough to ensure the promised outcomes?

What makes a classroom “high quality”?

How can “high-quality” access be achieved for all children, regardless of zip code within UPK classrooms if this has not been achieved in other publicly funded schools within NYC?

How do we prepare and support teachers to provide these high-quality experiences?

These questions, and their difficult answers, represent the third, and least common, form of rhetorical argumentation: logos. However, these questions require careful consideration, research, and decision making rather than powerful narratives. It is much harder to persuade a crowd, garner a coalition, or create a movement to sway policy when the emphasis is focused on nuanced, often contradictory, data, as opposed to feelings and anecdotes. By focusing the attention of voters on emotional arguments with which they can strongly identify, as opposed to discussions of important and difficult-to-resolve questions, candidates and the media do a disservice to their policy platforms.

What was lost was a fact-based discussion about how UPK might create educational opportunities for four-year-old children in NYC. Our analysis found that the media very rarely balanced the politically focused, emotional framing of the scale-up of UPK with critical questions about what educational policies might need to be considered in order to truly address issues of inequality within NYC. For example, there is growing evidence that universal approaches to pre-K may in fact replicate existing educational disparities, especially when the programs are nested within already segregated (by income, race, and achievement) public schools and community-based organizations (Bassok & Galdo, 2015). This may be due to differences in accessing high-quality educational settings, which can be influenced by teacher sorting and the fact that early childhood centers serving lower income children invariably have teachers with less educational preparation, less professional support, and a greater number of children with greater needs (Bassok, Fitzpatrick, Greenberg, & Loeb, 2013; Burchinal & Cryer, 2003; Jackson, 2009). As a result, even though all children may be able to access pre-K starting at age four, larger structural inequalities prevent equal opportunities for learning (Lee & Burkam, 2002). This, along with many other policy concerns, should have had a larger place in the scaling up of UPK. As with all the narratives that we identified across the media coverage, the emotional arguments held more sway and were successfully used to engage and persuade voters, but at a cost.


Our findings indicate that the media largely framed UPK in ways that directed public attention away from educational elements and toward emotionally charged issues that would have little impact on, or relation to, the learning experiences of four-year-olds. What was to happen within the UPK classrooms and how the promised high-quality early childhood experiences would be ensured received little attention in the press. Indeed, the educational policies embedded within the scale-up of UPK were subverted in the media coverage in favor of themes that created emotional touch-points for readers, constructing public notions of UPK that garnered readership rather than a knowledgeable electorate.

As our knowledge of how the media informs public understandings of policy issues grows, so too must our efforts to push for purposeful, informed narratives within the media (Hajer, 2009). There is a great policy cost when the attention of voters is focused on dramatic storylines. The complex relationship between politics, the media, and other actors in the process of “making policy” has an enormous impact on how communities experience the enactment of these policies (Gottweis, 2007, 2012; Valdez et al., 2016). As such, we must find ways to improve public knowledge of policies that impact people’s lives so that their roles in forming policy are more meaningful and yield the outcomes that they intend and desire.

In the 2015–2016 school year, 65,500 four-year-olds enrolled in UPK, a 20,000-child increase since Bill de Blasio first proposed the scale-up of UPK. This dramatic increase is truly impressive. That being said, the quality of the experiences in the classrooms and whether the inequalities so deftly presented and dramatized in the media will be addressed through this single year remain to be seen. Important questions remain unanswered even as more and more children enter into public pre-K settings. These questions include whether early childhood programming can close achievement gaps and improve the overall outcomes for low-income and at-risk children (Dotterer, Burchinal, Bryant, Early, & Pianta, 2013); how to best prepare and support teachers to offer high-quality early childhood educational experiences (Early et al., 2008; LoCasale-Crouch et al., 2007; Manlove, Vazquez, & Vernon, 2008); and what constitutes “high quality” early learning and care environments in early childhood education (Fenech, 2011). These represent only a small portion of the important questions we should be considering as pre-K continues to be framed as a means of solving a myriad of social and educational ills. A great deal has been attributed to the powers of public pre-K, powers that may have an incredible cost if they do not “pay out” in the ways that politicians and the media have promised that they will.


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Matrix Query Example and Excerpt

from Ethos and City_vs_State Codes




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 4, 2018, p. 1-32
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22015, Date Accessed: 1/27/2022 9:36:43 AM

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About the Author
  • Katherine K. Delaney
    University of Toledo
    E-mail Author
    KATHERINE K. DELANEY is an assistant professor of early childhood education. Her research focuses on the intersections of education policy, teacher practice, and community contexts in early childhood settings.
  • Susan B. Neuman
    New York University
    SUSAN B. NEUMAN is a professor of childhood education and literacy development at NYU. She specializes in intervention research designed to change the odds for children who live in poverty.
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