In a move sure to be welcomed by working families, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced yesterday that New York City will aim to bring free, full-day early childhood education to its three-year-olds. The program, which the city has dubbed “3-K for All,” will launch in the fall of 2017—three years after the mayor’s Pre-K for All program began, which fulfilled its promise to deliver pre-K, free of charge, to any four-year-old in the city who wanted it by the 2015–16 school year.

The 3-K initiative will begin with District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville. The two-year expansion of these two districts is projected to serve 1,800 three-year-olds who live there. By 2020, 3-K will be expanded to six other NYC school districts (for a total of eight); the Department of Education (DOE) expects to reach all remaining districts with universal access by the fall of 2021. Once the program reaches full expansion, an estimated 62,000 three-year-olds will be served by the preschool expansion each year.

Building on the Pre-K for All model, the 3-K system will be comprised of a network of DOE schools and New York City Early Education Centers (NYCEECs), leveraging and strengthening current programs that serve children younger than four years old. This network includes EarlyLearn NYC centers—city-contracted Head Start Centers, center-based child care, and family child care networks—that serve six-week-old to three-year-old children. EarlyLearn is currently managed by the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), but the expansion will bring its program under the management of the DOE and in line with the district’s curricula standards. Currently, these programs are subsidized through vouchers and/or tax credits on the basis of how far below the federal poverty level (FPL) families are, an indication that 3-K for All could have a large positive impact on families living just above the FPL or middle-class families with multiple children.

The successful rollout of 3-K for All will require securing $700 million in funding from the state and federal governments. While this is no small feat, a commitment to early childhood care and education in the United States—which currently spends just 0.4 percent of its GDP on child care, the lowest amount of all industrialized countries—is long overdue. And most importantly, if New York City pulls it off, the program would be a huge victory for children, working families, and gender equality.

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A Win for Children

Studies have found that high-quality education during the first five years of children’s lives positively impacts cognitive brain development. While much research on the topic has been dedicated to the benefits of preschool for low-income children, quality early childhood education yields the same benefits for middle-class children. Century Foundation senior fellow Halley Potter’s research on four-year-olds enrolled in pre-k programs is a testament to these positive impacts, across income level. She writes, for example, that “Boston pre-K programs found that low-income and middle-class students alike showed large gains in literacy and math skills as a result of the program, while low-income students also showed gains in social-emotional skills related to self-regulation and attention.”

The benefits of quality early childhood education extend much later in life—for both children and their mothers.

The benefits of quality early childhood education extend much later in life—for both children and their mothers. In an intensive study conducted by economist James J. Heckman which followed children from birth to age 35, the key determinant for these children and their mothers earning higher salaries was their access to preschool.

Benefits for Working Families

Indeed, child care is a huge need for most families with young children. In 2016, 31 percent of families with children under 6 years of age were headed by a single parent, and the majority of married-couple 1 American families with children under the age of 6 had both parents working (56.3 percent). But the high costs of child care have put a strain on lower-income and even middle-income families. As Potter and Century Foundation fellow Julie Kashen have written, “Increasingly, families across the income spectrum have all parents in the workforce and are in need of child care.” With New York a state that has clocked in among the most expensive child care costs for children, 3-K will reduce the financial burden many New York families with young children face.

A Step toward Gender Equality in the Workforce

The 3-K expansion will inevitably have a hand at furthering gender equality in America’s workforce, as well. Child care costs are so expensive in some states that they threaten families’ ability to have both parents in the work force. Not isolated from the persistent gender wage gap in the United States (as well as the forces behind it), it is still largely the mother who remains in the home when needed.

In married-couple families with children under age 6, 60.8 percent of mothers are currently working; but out of those same families, if only one parent is working, 89 percent call the man the breadwinner, with just 11 percent having women bring home the sole paycheck.

When mothers leave their jobs to care for their children, they face barriers, including lower wages, upon attempted re-entry to the workforce. But women who work while their children are in preschool earn more while their children are enrolled, and continue to earn even more thereafter. In providing free, full-day preschool for three-year-olds, 3-K for All will ease the financial burden of early childcare education that disproportionately impacts mothers’ careers and salaries, ultimately taking a step toward gender equality in New York City’s workforce.


  1. “Married-couple” families here refer to opposite-sex couples as per Bureau of Labor Statistics calculations.