After spending seven years and hundreds of millions of dollars, New York City’s public prekindergarten program for three-year-olds—3-K for All—has done the seemingly impossible: it places families in some neighborhoods on long waiting lists, while paying for tens of thousands of empty seats citywide. Designed as a continuation of former mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature Universal Pre-K (UPK) program for four-year-olds, 3-K has struggled because of the de Blasio administration’s poor planning and execution. It saddles New Yorkers with expectations about a service that the city can scarcely afford or administer. 

Mayor Eric Adams, facing budget shortfalls of at least $6 billion in each of the next three fiscal years, has halted de Blasio’s promised 3-K citywide expansion. Despite the biggest budget crunch since at least the 2008 financial crisis, city council progressives remain committed to universal 3-K, and the issue could become prominent in the 2025 mayoral primary. Until then, Adams should focus on reducing the city’s costs of living and on improving 3-K operational efficiency by reallocating seat capacity to areas where demand for it is greatest.

For all the billions of dollars invested nationwide in expanding pre- and 3-K programs over the last four decades, little high-quality, consistent evidence supports their educational effectiveness. The conventional wisdom among lawmakers and early-education advocates holds that getting children into school before kindergarten increases classroom readiness, especially for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. But empirical support for this claim is incomplete and tenuous. Some studies suggest that early-childhood education makes students likelier to enroll in college. Another study concluded that New York City’s UPK program increased the probabilities that children would obtain a diagnosis for asthma or vision problems and receive treatment for hearing or vision problems. Early-childhood education might therefore have a poorly understood impact on later life choices and prevent some health problems from impairing children’s development.

Taken as a whole, however, research suggests that academic skills gained in public pre-K, if any, tend to fade within a few years, as peers who did not attend early-childhood programs quickly catch up to those who did. One high-quality longitudinal study followed 2,990 low-income students in Tennessee, some randomly assigned to state-funded pre-K and others to a control group whose parents applied for a seat but did not receive a placement. Researchers found that those who attended public pre-K had, by the end of sixth grade, lower state standardized test scores, greater placement rates in special-education services, and a higher chance of disciplinary infractions.

These findings accord with other studies that show little to no effects on standardized test scores. The U.S. Department of Education’s 2015 systematic review of the evidence for Head Start programs (which provide federally funded early-childhood education, primarily for low-income families) found no discernible effects on math achievement and potentially positive effects on reading achievement. The lack of definitive educational improvements from public early-childhood education means that these programs’ justification depends on defining and achieving secondary policy goals.

Since its inception, 3-K for All’s confused purpose and poorly planned implementation made failure likely. When de Blasio announced the program in April 2017, he pitched it as an extension of his UPK program. Though superficially similar, the two differed in three fundamental ways: 3-K for All wasn’t designed to be universal from the beginning; little infrastructure was available to expand the program citywide; and long-term funding was not in place to sustain such a commitment. 

For all de Blasio’s campaigning in 2013 on narrowing income inequality—his “Tale of Two Cities” theme—he also promised to expand public pre-K for four-year-olds to all city families, rich and poor alike. De Blasio proposed to fund the program through a new income tax on city residents earning over $500,000. This tax, however, required Albany’s approval. Former governor Andrew Cuomo had no appetite to help a man he intensely disliked, much less during his own 2014 gubernatorial campaign. Instead, the state legislature agreed to fund UPK, without authorizing the tax (and in exchange for a de Blasio defeat on charter schools), giving New York City the money that the mayor needed to implement the program universally by September 2015, midway through his first term.

UPK, standing alone, was therefore not primarily designed to alleviate poverty or advance educational equity, in the progressive understanding of these goals. Instead, it effectively defrayed the city’s notoriously high cost of living for families who chose to stay in the city rather than decamp for the suburbs or the Sunbelt. Though it promised greater workforce opportunities for both working- and professional-class mothers, a universal program would inevitably produce more substantial benefits for higher earners because child care is generally more expensive in high-rent neighborhoods and because of the greater opportunity costs for professional parents to cut work hours and care for their children themselves. It thus raised the possibility of worsening income inequality, despite de Blasio’s campaign promises.

But de Blasio did not follow his own playbook when—shortly before the Democratic primary in 2017, as he sought reelection—he announced a 3-K for All program that would not, in fact, be available for all. Instead of waiting until the city could support the additional $700 million annual cost to ensure universal access, de Blasio split the difference. The city would first launch the program in two low-income community school districts—in the South Bronx and central Brooklyn—before gradually expanding to eight districts by fall 2020 and across all 32 city districts a year later. 

Designing the 3-K rollout around low-income neighborhoods meant that the program would be fundamentally different from UPK. As early as April 2018, the Independent Budget Office noted that the initial two districts featured lower-than-expected 3-K enrollment. At the same time, by 2018, city housing prices and rents had spiked, especially in high-rent neighborhoods, straining family finances in neighborhoods that public 3-K did not reach.

Further, early analysis recognized, as did de Blasio himself, that universal 3-K would be logistically more challenging to implement than UPK. The city lacked a well-developed network of 3-K providers; no other jurisdiction ran a program of similar scale that might provide a template, leaving de Blasio officials largely on their own to develop one from scratch. Finding age-appropriate space, for example, was difficult. Schools with teenagers were often unsuitable for three-year-olds’ learning and developmental needs, which differ from those of four-year-olds enrolled in UPK. School-building modifications such as rearranging classrooms to allow three-year-olds to remain on ground level further swelled costs and delayed 3-K capacity from coming online.

Undeterred, the mayor hoped that $700 million in new funding from Albany and Washington would materialize by his fall 2021 universal-implementation target date. That prospect appeared far-fetched in 2017, with two of the mayor’s nemeses, Governor Cuomo and President Donald Trump, in office. State legislators were likewise unwilling to fund 3-K in the city until all four-year-olds received pre-K statewide; one-third still lacked access. In any event, de Blasio, term-limited, would be out of office shortly after the start of the 2021–22 school year. 

Then Covid-19 struck. When billions in federal education-relief funds arrived, de Blasio saw an opportunity to backfill 3-K’s funding. In March 2021, he announced that the city would use the time-limited funding to create 60,000 3-K seats for universal expansion by September 2023. But he (again) failed to account for replacement funding, once pandemic relief ended, setting the program up for a fiscal cliff. He banked on making up the difference with a post-pandemic economic recovery. That has failed to materialize: New York’s recovery has lagged almost everywhere else in America.

Years of de Blasio’s sloppy, equity-driven capacity planning and funding decisions, temporarily papered over via federal relief, have finally caught up to 3-K. Today, about 43,000 children are enrolled in the program, while more than 37,000 3-K and pre-K seats are unfilled. Lower-income neighborhoods like Brownsville, Harlem, and the South Bronx still have the highest rates of seat vacancies. Meantime, families in wealthier neighborhoods in SoHo, the Upper East Side, northern Queens, and southern Brooklyn scramble to find open spots. The 3-K centers have been paid based on their maximum capacity, not their actual utilization, resulting in untold millions of taxpayer dollars wasted on empty seats. Pre-K and 3-K service providers have also complained that the city is months behind in paying them.

Universal 3-K’s true death knell is sounding from the city’s mishandling of another matter: the migrant crisis. Now estimated to cost the city $10.8 billion between this fiscal year and next, the migrant budget pressure has Adams scrambling to find savings. Last year, he walked back de Blasio’s planned 3-K expansion; and in November, he announced that the city would eliminate thousands of seats, mostly vacant, across the city.

But years of expectations, however fanciful, have given city council members cause to push for 3-K expansion. The Progressive Caucus has led the effort, blaming insufficient outreach for poor enrollment. The pullback from 3-K will doubtless be used against Adams in a primary challenge from the left in 2025.

Gotham’s leaders should take away several lessons from the 3-K debacle. Most fundamentally, reducing the cost of living would have been better for families than a dedicated 3-K program. As Manhattan Institute fellow Robert VerBruggen noted in a recent report, spiraling living expenses, especially for housing, help drive families out of metros like New York. Out-of-control child-care costs are one example of the city’s broader affordability problem. To stay afloat, child-care centers must pass along rent and other fixed-cost increases as higher prices. As housing has become increasingly unaffordable over the past decade—thanks partly to de Blasio’s failure to boost supply—families with kids were hit doubly hard

Reducing the cost of living generally will therefore yield significant results, compared with a program that specifically addresses only one aspect of the problem—poorly. Families with more income to spare can devote those resources to the child-care solution of their choice. Instead of a one-size-fits-all initiative, they could opt for, say, child-care cooperatives or private-school options. The city would also have avoided the overwhelming administrative burden of establishing a network of 3-K providers, paying them on time, and all the political pitfalls that come with a new constituency that favors a program’s continuation, regardless of its effectiveness.

City leaders should also learn that programs like 3-K, if tried at all, should be planned and executed from the beginning as broadly available amenities, regardless of neighborhood or income. Designing the 3-K rollout around poverty alleviation and equity overlooked how the service could resonate with higher-earning families. Keeping these families in the city pays for services that benefit poorer New Yorkers. Any such program also needs to have the infrastructure in place to enable a successful rollout citywide—something clearly absent for 3-K. As Adams tries to patch these gaping flaws, he should ensure that 3-K capacity is focused on high-demand areas.

Finally, de Blasio’s wrongheaded decision to expand 3-K through time-limited federal pandemic-relief funds demonstrates the need to establish proper expectations around funding sustainability. In setting up a steep fiscal cliff, de Blasio pulled the rug from under parents who have begun to rely on the program, oblivious to its long-term infeasibility and operational woes. Adams should thus adopt a policy forbidding the use of time-limited federal and state funding for long-term, recurring programs. This would force the city council and the mayor to make hard trade-offs between programs that are worth funding and those that are not.

As New York enters a period of fiscal consolidation, its 3-K program will remain in limbo: impracticable to expand, politically impossible to eliminate, and rife with uncertainties for families. In an ironic twist, 3-K has indeed come to define part of de Blasio’s legacy: it is illustrative of a profligate, ill-advised, self-interested, and ineffective administration.

Photo: Pacific Press Media Production Corp. / Alamy Stock Photo


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