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Not So Fast: An Analysis of New York City’s Expanding Universal Pre-Kindergarten Program

by Christopher Holland - August 29, 2017

This commentary evaluates both the strengths and weaknesses of New York City's universal pre-K initiative and provides three recommendations for future action.


The de Blasio administration established three goals for its Pre-K for All initiative. First, they wanted to expand childcare without placing strains on the city’s budget (Hernandez, 2013; Quinn, 2017). Second, they wanted to provide “high quality” instruction for students (Kirp, 2016; Goldstein, 2016). Third, during its early years, they aggressively sought to increase enrollment (New York City Independent Budget Office (IBO), 2015). These goals would all be attained; however, along the way, the administration experienced significant challenges.

Funding was the first major hurdle. Officials needed to raise significant revenues to offset the cost of opening pre-K spots for all eligible four-year olds. de Blasio originally proposed a small tax increase for families earning over $500,000 a year (Hernandez, 2013; Potter, 2015). Once announced, the Partnership for New York City and state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle characterized the tax increase as unfair and unnecessary (Grynbaum & Kaplan, 2014; Goldstein, 2016).

The second major issue the de Blasio administration faced was balancing the supply of pre-K openings with the demand of new enrollees. To do this, the city recruited and vetted 2,000 teachers, 3,000 classrooms, and 300 community providers (Kirp, 2016). City officials also expanded funding for community-based organizations and nonprofit programs (Kirp, 2016). Payments to outside contractors increased from $83.6 million in 2013-2014 to $238 million in 2014-2015 (IBO, 2015). To recruit students, the de Blasio administration combined door-to-door grassroots activities with a strong advertising campaign that educated New Yorkers about the program (Kirp, 2016; Goldstein, 2016; Potter, 2015).

Finally, many people question whether a universal model is better than a more targeted approach (Quinn, 2017; Wong, 2014). Research suggests that pre-K benefits students from economically disadvantaged households (O’Brien & Dervarics, 2007). Other studies reported similar findings for English-language learners (Wong, 2014). At the same time, reformers note that researchers have not reached similar conclusions about middle-class children (Wong, 2014; Quinn, 2017). Therefore, within New York City, some label de Blasio’s initiative as a subsidy for the middle and upper classes and a funding cut for families who need assistance the most (Wong, 2014; Goldstein, 2016).


Many consider Pre-K for All a success. As a result, de Blasio, who faces re-election in November, pledged expanding the program to include three-year-olds (Taylor, 2017). Despite its praise, the execution of Pre-K for All raises concerns about future funding and homogenous classrooms that promote de-facto segregation.

First, de Blasio’s initiative ensured that pre-K services would be of “high quality” by requiring stronger employment qualifications, continual professional development programming, salary increases, low teacher/student ratios, and rigorous facility standards (New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), 2016). Furthermore, the NYCDOE constructed standards that included everything from employment requirements to healthy meals, teacher training, free play, and screen time (Goldstein, 2016; NYCDOE, 2016). Finally, reliance on student-centered, play-based pedagogies instead of standardized test preparation encouraged Pre-K for All programs to adopt successful, 21st century teaching methods supported by researchers (Goldstein, 2016). Such high standards require significant funding. According to a report from the Institute of Women’s Policy Research and Early Childhood Policy Research, high-quality programs cost around $9,076 per child (Gault, Mitchell, William, Dey, & Sorokina, 2008). In New York City, Pre-K for All allocates over $10,000 per student (Gault, Mitchell, William, Dey, & Sorokina, 2008).

Furthermore, Pre-K for All’s success hinged on a massive increase in enrollment in full-day pre-K programs. According to the IBO, half-day pre-K enrollment fell from 36,000 to 14,000 between 2013-2014 and 2014-2015; however, this was overshadowed by the massive influx of full-day enrollments that leapt from 36,000 to 52,000 (IBO, 2015). These enrollees exceeded the 51,000 benchmark that the de Blasio administration set. By the end of that year, approximately 65,000 eligible four-year olds enrolled in either half or full-day programs. In its second year (2015-2016), that number increased to 68,547 (IBO, 2015).

Despite these successes, officials must address several shortcomings to improve the program. Securing funding for the initiative included a much publicized fiscal argument between de Blasio and New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo (Hernandez, 2013; Grynbaum & Kaplan, 2014). To avoid what was labelled as an “unfair tax hike,” Cuomo agreed to provide $300 million from the state’s budget to the city’s pre-K efforts and guaranteed funding for five years (Goldstein, 2016; Potter, 2015). This level of fiscal assistance offered by the state government makes the program prone to state-level politics. Economic recessions, tightened budgets, and changing political dynamics in Albany have the potential to either preserve or hinder Pre-K for All without input from city officials.

Finally, a report from the Century Foundation found that classroom diversity remains an issue (Harris, 2016; Potter, 2015). In half of all pre-K classrooms, 70% of students belonged to the same racial or ethnic group (Potter, 2015; Harris, 2016). One out of every six classrooms were 90% homogenous (Potter, 2015; Harris, 2016). The report also found that almost half of all Pre-K for All programs admitted students based on residential zoning requirements and/or whether a sibling attended the school. Another report found that the city opened more pre-K slots in affluent neighborhoods (Klein, 2014; Fuller, Castillo, Nguyen, & Thai, 2014).

The de Blasio administration tried to discredit these reports by claiming that researchers made broad assumptions about the socioeconomic status of various neighborhoods (Klein, 2014). Moreover, officials highlight data that captures demographics of all enrollees throughout the city as evidence of diversity (Potter, 2015). Despite this, city officials have yet to release statistics about diversity within individual programs and classrooms (Potter, 2015).   


The youth of the Pre-K for All program dictates that researchers and policymakers should not be quick to abandon the program or its core principles. Rather, they should wait and observe the program’s effects on participants as they progress through school and life. As a result, adequate conclusions about Pre-K for All’s effectiveness require years of empirical research. Therefore, prior to expanding services to three-year olds, the de Blasio administration should consider three major recommendations to ensure the vitality of this initiative.

First, the de Blasio administration should consider plans that promote greater degrees of racial, ethnic, and geographic diversity within individual programs. Second, officials should develop a plan to shift funding to more self-sufficient sources. Finally, the Mayor’s office should collect data about each Pre-K for All cohort and track the program’s long and short term benefits to strengthen already established pedagogy and guidelines ahead of expansionary efforts.


Fuller, B., Castillo, E., Nguyen, T., & Thai, A. (2014). Expanding preschool in New York City – Which communities benefit from gains in supply. Berkeley, CA: University of California Berkeley Institute of Human Development.

Goldstein, D. (2016, September 7). Bill de Blasio’s pre-K crusade. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/09/bill-de-blasios-prek-crusade/498830/

Grynbaum, M., & Kaplan, T. (2014, January 21). Pre-K plan puts Cuomo at odds with de Blasio on funding. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/nyregion/cuomo-prekindergarten-proposal.html

Gault, B., Mitchell, A. W., Williams, E., Dey, J., & Sorokina, O. (2008). Meaningful investments in pre-K: Estimating the per-child costs of quality programs. Washington, DC: Pre-K Now.

Harris, E. A. (2016). Racial segregation in New York schools starts with pre-K, report finds. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/21/nyregion/racial-segregation-in-new-york-schools-begins-in-pre-k-report-finds.html

Hernandez, J. C. (2013, August 28). Obstacles seen for de Blasio’s preschool plan. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/29/education/obstacles-seen-for-de-blasios-preschools-plan.html

Kirp, D. L. (2016, February 13). How New York made pre-K a success. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/how-new-york-made-pre-k-a-success.html

Klein, R. (2014). Study says NYC preschool expansion favors wealthy residents. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/08/study-nyc-preschool-expansion_n_5949434.html

New York City Department of Education. (2016). Pre-K for All handbook for district schools and pre-K centers. New York, NY: New York City Department of Education.

New York City Independent Budget Office. (2015). Universal pre-kindergarten: Enrollment and funding. New York, NY: New York City Independent Budget Office.

O’Brien E. M., & Dervarics, C. (2007). Pre-kindergarten: What the research shows. Alexandria, VA: Center for Public Education. Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Pre-kindergarten/Pre-Kindergarten/Pre-kindergarten-What-the-research-shows.html

Potter, H. (2015). Lessons from New York City’s universal pre-K expansion: How a focus on diversity could make it even better. New York, NY: The Century Foundation.

Quinn, M. (2017). Universal pre-K is hard to find and harder to fund. Governing the States and Localities. Retrieved from http://www.governing.com/topics/education/gov-universal-pre-kindergarten.html

Taylor, K. (2017, April 24). New York City will offer free preschool for all 3-year-olds. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/24/nyregion/de-blasio-pre-k-expansion.html

Wong, A. (2014, November 18). The case against universal preschool. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/11/the-case-against-universal-preschool/382853/

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 29, 2017
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22149, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 1:45:22 PM

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