Public enthusiasm for early-childhood education is reminiscent of the joke about two old women at a Catskills resort: “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible,” one says. “Yes,” says the other, “and such small portions.” Though New Yorkers are dissatisfied with the results that public education has delivered for most city children, they’re willing to invest in even more of it—maybe starting earlier will do the trick.

Since proposing last week to expand pre-kindergarten to all three-year-olds in New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has faced criticism on both educational and fiscal-policy grounds. Critics of the mayor often note that existing pre-K programs (including the federally funded Head Start) have delivered underwhelming results. Gains often “fade out” as children progress beyond kindergarten. Skeptics of universal pre-K’s educational benefits see the program’s true purpose as subsidized middle-class child care—a concern not alleviated by administration officials, who have openly touted savings on child care as part of the appeal of their “high-quality” program.

De Blasio has been defiantly vague on how to pay for expanding pre-K to three-year-olds. He’ll start by expanding the program in just eight of the city’s 32 school districts, for an estimated annual cost of $1.1 billion. It would have been easier to provide pre-K to some or all three-year-olds had de Blasio not first insisted on universal pre-K for four-year-olds. A targeted program of early-childhood education could have focused exclusively on serving neighborhoods with poorly performing schools. Then again, it is the pre-K initiative’s “universal” quality that accounts for its popularity.

Cutting city spending—specifically, trimming wages and/or benefits for New York’s unionized workforce—would be one way to fund de Blasio’s expensive pre-K plans. The 2014 pre-K expansion could have been paid for by requiring more cost-sharing from workers and/or retirees for their medical benefits. The efforts of de Blasio’s predecessor as mayor, Michael Bloomberg, to secure new union contracts ran aground on his insistence that employees bear at least a small portion of the cost of their health-insurance premiums. De Blasio dropped that demand and soon settled on highly generous terms with labor. When questioned about his often scattershot approach to policy, de Blasio likes to say, “I can walk and chew gum at the same time.” His attitude toward the budget is the same. In the mayor’s view, only skinflints like Bloomberg think that New York needs to choose between union benefits and programs for needy children. De Blasio has yet to pay a political price for his irresponsible budgeting because city tax revenues continue to grow.

There’s another way, de Blasio knows, to pay for his second pre-K expansion: raise taxes on the wealthy. The mayor has always harbored a desire to do so, almost regardless of where the revenues go. Taxing “the rich” was his original plan for how to fund universal pre-K back in 2014, until Governor Andrew Cuomo stepped in with state funds. This budget cycle, de Blaso proposed a “mansion tax” on sales of homes worth $2 million or more. He has probably gamed out a scenario whereby federal or state funds do not materialize for his “3-K for all” vision—forcing him, alas, to revive the tax hike on high-income earners.

De Blasio’s struggles to govern New York City should not be surprising, given his scant experience as a chief executive. More surprising have been the many first-term political missteps by someone who has spent virtually his entire adult life working in government. On universal pre-K, though, de Blasio has struck political gold: New Yorkers, especially parents of young children, remain enthusiastic about the program, and universal “3-K” looks like a winning political issue for the mayor. Even were de Blasio to be succeeded by a Republican in 2018 or 2022, that new mayor would likely refrain from rolling back universal pre-K; entitlements are always hard to retract. In this climate, opponents of universal pre-K make sound arguments but risk political irrelevancy. A more realistic strategy might be to accept universal pre-K as a fait accompli and focus on how to improve it.

Photo by Rob Bennett


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