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Pre-K’s Dangerous Tradeoffs

eye on the news

Pre-K’s Dangerous Tradeoffs

Progressives are willing to skimp on safety to achieve their policy goals. August 22, 2016
Education

In early June, a bipartisan bill to increase oversight and ensure the safety of children at state-licensed daycare providers sailed through New York’s state senate. Then, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio launched a behind-the-scenes campaign in the state assembly to kill it in committee. “It would appear counterintuitive that de Blasio would want to stomp on such an effort,” wrote Daily News reporter Greg Smith. “Except for one crucial fact—it had been proposed by Gov. Cuomo, his political nemesis.” The mayor and the governor, both Democrats, have been engaged in a sometimes-petty feud since shortly after de Blasio took office in January 2014.

Cuomo sponsored the bill in response to Smith’s investigative reports, which revealed a pattern of rampant overcrowding and disregard for safety in the city’s day-care facilities. Smith told disturbing stories of children who died or were severely injured due to caregiver neglect. He chronicled the inaction of city regulators in the face of repeated complaints. The ill-fated bill would have required providers to post safety “report cards” at their entrances and make it easier to shut down repeat offenders. But de Blasio’s lobbyist in Albany successfully made the case to assembly members that day-care providers in minority neighborhoods would have more trouble meeting the safety requirements; shutting them down would leave minority families in the lurch. Smith concluded that the episode was a case study “in the Machiavellian ways of Albany politics, where protecting turf is sometimes more important than protecting children.” Maybe Smith is right. But if de Blasio was concerned that the city couldn’t afford the added cost of safety regulations for vulnerable infants and toddlers after launching a massive new pre-K program, it reflects poorly on his progressive priorities.

As one of the first acts of his mayoralty, de Blasio made a big political bet on early-childhood education (Cuomo stymied the mayor’s quest to finance the universal pre-K program with a tax on New York City’s wealthy). The initiative garnered national headlines and positioned the mayor as a progressive leader. He wanted the program up and running quickly. Expanding and ensuring access to pre-K for all took priority over daycare safety for the disadvantaged.

For decades, pre-K advocates have peddled a seductively simple argument: disadvantaged kids are way behind academically when they enter kindergarten, so pre-K is essential. But the most disadvantaged kids are already well behind when they reach pre-K age. Given social dysfunction at home, and the dangerous neglect at daycare that many poor children face in their first three years, it’s far from clear that pre-K will make a big difference.

Some early-education experts, such as the American Enterprise Institute’s Katharine Stevens, argue that the emphasis on universal pre-K expansion is misplaced and that we should focus instead on policies that target the poorest children earlier. But many progressive early-education advocates aren’t even willing to debate the issue. Bellwether Education Partners’ Sara Mead contends that the “notion that there is a simple trade-off between investments in pre-k and infants and toddlers is overly simplistic.” They tend to dismiss arguments—and tradeoffs—that get in the way of across-the-board funding increases for early-childhood education, especially pre-K.

Time may prove this to be a politically smart strategy, but de Blasio’s actions in Albany suggest that it’s naïve. Even the most spendthrift politicians must eventually make tough choices. New York has proved itself willing to make massive investments in early-childhood education. Yet the same mayor who advocated for $400 million a year in new spending on universal pre-K was reportedly unwilling to bear the costs of a few more regulations designed to keep poor infants and toddlers safe.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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