This is the first of three in a series of posts about the upcoming NYC mayoral elections on November 5, 2013.

With Bill de Blasio poised to win Tuesday’s election for New York City mayor, attention is already turning to the next hurdles he is likely to encounter, the fight for universal pre-K being one of the first. It’s worth taking a look at what’s being debated, where people agree and what deserves more attention in the discussion about universal pre-K.

While the current policy debate is largely about funding, there’s promising consensus around universal pre-K as a policy goal. If de Blasio is elected, and if his pre-K proposal is funded, the next step is making sure New York’s newly expanded pre-K programs are high quality. One way to achieve this goal is to make sure the pre-K program is not only universal but also economically integrated.

The Debate: How to Pay?

De Blasio has proposed creating 48,000 new full-day pre-K seats—enough for all four-year-olds in New York—by fall 2014. This is a tall order, which will require converting 38,000 existing half-time slots to full-time and adding an additional 10,000 seats, all to the tune of $340 million.

De Blasio proposes paying for this by raising taxes on New York’s wealthiest taxpayers, boosting the tax rate on income over $500,000 from 3.9 to 4.4 percent. To put this in perspective, those making $500,000 to $1 million per year would see their annual taxes increase by an average of $973 per year.

Republican mayoral candidate Joseph Lhota disagrees with the plan, noting New York is already “the highest taxed city in the United States.” However, the real obstacle for de Blasio is convincing New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature, who will need to sign on to any change in the city’s income tax. Cuomo has stated he generally opposes raising taxes.

The Consensus: Universal Pre-K Is a Good Goal

In the midst of this funding debate, there is a silent victory for supporters of expanding early childhood education. While there is disagreement about how to pay for it, New York Democrats and Republicans alike have spoken out in favor of universal pre-K. Lhota and Cuomo, as well as some Republicans in the state legislature, agree with de Blasio’s goal of universal pre-K.

This agreement is no small point. When President Obama announced a proposal for universal pre-K in his State of the Union address earlier this year, critics picked apart the suggestion. Some doubted the effectiveness of all but the very best preschool programs, while others argued only programs serving exclusively low-income or high-needs students should be funded.

This growing consensus in favor of universal pre-K, at least in New York, is a huge step in the right direction. Research shows state investments in early childhood education pay off.

Furthermore, providing universal access, as opposed to funding programs for high-needs students only, is important for two reasons:

(1) It relieves a significant financial burden from middle-class families who do not make the cut for means-tested programs.

(2) It opens opportunities to improve the quality of early childhood education for all students by integrating classrooms.

The Path Forward: An Opportunity for Integrated Pre-K?

One topic largely missing from NYC’s universal pre-K discussion is quality. Taking the city’s existing pre-K program to scale is an opportunity to evaluate what makes a good program and make sure those elements are fostered.

Increasing the length of all pre-K programs to full-day is an important part of improving quality. Research also shows the quality of instruction has a huge impact on children’s learning in early childhood programs. But a third factor, the composition of the student body, is also influential.

Preschool children in socioeconomically diverse classrooms have larger learning gains than those in lower-income classrooms, found Jeanne Reid, a research scientist at the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College at Columbia University. This difference couldn’t be explained just by having better teachers in the mixed-income classrooms. Reid’s research suggests peers matter and preschool children learn more when they’re in an economically mixed group. Research on K-12 socioeconomic integration contains similar findings.

Since universal pre-K programs provide free seats to all families, regardless of income, they make it possible to have economically mixed classrooms, unlike most Head Start programs, for example, which are typically limited to low-income or at-risk children.

This is a win-win situation. Middle-class families gain access and all students benefit from the learning gains associated with economically integrated classrooms. Indeed, while the gains are largest for low-income students, Reid’s research found middle-income students also had improved language comprehension in mixed-income classrooms as opposed to more affluent settings.

Preschool is also an ideal time to pursue socioeconomic integration, as many parents are already choosing among a number of options. New York City could adapt its list of enrollment priorities to control for economic balance within preschool classrooms when assigning families to programs.

If de Blasio is elected, hopefully he will be able to convince the governor and legislators to approve his plan for funding universal pre-K, but that should be the beginning of the discussion, not the end.

Universal pre-K is a good goal.

Universal, integrated pre-K is even better.


For more election-related issues, read about stop-and-frisk from blogger Jill Silos-Rooney here