Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a bold plan to build on New York City’s successful “Pre-K for All” program, which made full-day pre-K available to all four-year-olds in the city who want it, by extending capacity in universal pre-K to serve three-year-olds as well. This “3-K for All” program will start in fall 2017 in two of the city’s poorest community school districts—District 7 in the South Bronx and District 23 in Brownsville—but the hope is to expand the program to serve all three-year-olds across the city who want to participate by 2021, contingent on receiving $700 million in funding from the state and federal government.

As my colleague Molly Bangs explained, 3-K for All is a win for children and working families. Expanding pre-K access for three-year-olds in the city is positive step forward, since the benefits of early education for children are clearly backed by research, and there is a great need for reliable and affordable child care for New York families. However, the universal aspect of 3-K for All is perhaps its boldest and best feature, and it could be the key to creating a high-quality, sustainable program.

The Scarcity of Universal Pre-K

Very few states offer strong universal pre-K programs for four-year-olds, and even fewer serve three-year-olds.

Just nineteen states and the District of Columbia offer pre-K programs with universal eligibility for four-year-olds, meaning that age and residency are the only criteria for participating. In most of these programs, universal eligibility does not translate into universal access, however, because there simply are not enough seats available. Only the District of Columbia, Florida, Oklahoma, and Vermont enroll more than 70 percent of four-year-olds in universal pre-K programs.

With respect to three-year-olds, access is even more limited. Only nine states and the District of Columbia have any kind of pre-K program with universal eligibility for three-year-olds, and no program enrolls more than 70 percent of three-year-olds in pre-K programs. In fact, other than the District of Columbia, which enrolls 64 percent of three-year-olds in pre-K, no program even comes close. Vermont is the next in line, with just 26 percent of three-year-olds enrolled.

If New York City succeeds in its goal of eventually serving 62,000 children a year in 3-K for All, that would mean that New York would serve more three-year-olds in free pre-K than any other program in the country.

The Benefits of Universal Pre-K Programs

Within the early childhood policy community, there is an ongoing debate over the merits of universal pre-K versus targeted programs that serve low-income and at-risk children. When dollars are scarce, it makes sense to serve the neediest children first. In this context, New York City’s EarlyLearn program, which was designed to meet this need, has never received the adequate level of funding required to reach the goal of serving all eligible low-income children with high-quality programs. As these EarlyLearn centers transition to become part of 3-K for All, the new initiative will inherit this funding problem—which means more investment will be needed to improve the quality of these programs that serve at-risk children.

However, the expansion of access to provide three-year-olds of all backgrounds with public pre-K will also introduce several important benefits to New York City’s pre-K landscape:

  1. Access for children of all backgrounds creates the potential for diverse classrooms. Universal pre-K creates the potential to bring together children of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds into the same pre-K classrooms. The ability to construct classrooms that are diverse by race and class is a huge advantage, because diversity is an important part of quality in early education. Recent research shows that preschool children learn more in socioeconomically integrated environments, as opposed to attending high-poverty classrooms, and they develop greater racial tolerance when learning alongside racially diverse peers.
  2. Middle-class children benefit from pre-K, too. Research on outcomes in early education has historically focused on low-income children, showing, for example, that high-quality early education targeting disadvantaged families can yield returns on investment of as much as $8 for every $1 spent. But more recent research shows that middle-class children benefit from early education as well. Both middle-class and low-income children in universal pre-K programs in Tulsa, Oklahoma and Boston, Massachusetts showed cognitive gains as compared to peers who did not attend pre-K. Likewise, economist Tim Bartik has found that middle-class children show lifetime earning gains as a result of attending high-quality pre-K programs that are almost on par with the gains shown by low-income children.
  3. Universal pre-K programs draw broad political support. Because families of all backgrounds stand to benefit, universal programs have in the past drawn broad, bipartisan political approval and attracted the support of middle-class and affluent families with political and social capital. Seventy percent of Americans support federal funding for universal preschool programs. Mayor de Blasio seems well aware of this dynamic, explaining the rationale for expanding access to middle-class parents in part because “it obviously creates maximum energy to get something like this done and supported here in the city and the state and federal level if it’s something that everyone benefits from.”

The path forward for 3-K for All is uncertain, with an uphill battle to get the state and federal funding needed to create a universal program, and a mayoral election coming up this November. But even if implementation falls short of the proposed goals, this latest announcement, coupled with NYC’s Pre-K for All expansion, marks a positive step toward viewing early education as a public good for all.