Update: Governor Cuomo announced an agreement to allocate $300 million from the state budget for prekindergarten in New York City (though to mayor Bill de Blasio’s dismay, this agreement was also a victory for charter schools, which he has sought to slow the spread of, according to The New York Times.)

As expected, finding funding for a citywide universal pre-K program, with enough full-day seats for all four-year-olds in NYC, is turning out to be the first big challenge for Bill de Blasio, New York City’s new mayor.

De Blasio has made impressive progress so far advancing his plan to fund universal pre-K with a dedicated tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers. But there’s still considerable ground to cover for de Blasio to get the needed sign-off from the state legislature for his proposed tax. Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo reiterated last week that he is committed to cutting taxes, not creating new ones.

This question of funding is important not only because it holds the key to whether or not universal pre-K will become more than just a promise, but also because the tenor of the debate affects how taxpayers view universal pre-K.

De Blasio’s best chance of funding universal pre-K and ensuring the quality of those programs is to stress the universal aspect of the plan: unlike income-tested programs such as Head Start, de Blasio’s pre-K proposal is one that stands to benefit New Yorkers of all backgrounds.

Re-framing the Debate

Amy Rothschild, an early childhood educator and Teaching for Change fellow, argued in The Hechinger Report that de Blasio’s current messaging misses the mark by framing universal pre-K primarily as a welfare program.

De Blasio has described his proposed tax on those making $500,000 or more as amounting to “about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks” per day. “De Blasio’s latte language has unfortunate spillover,” Rothschild writes. “It emphasizes the flow of money from the wealthy to the poor, entrenching the idea that early childhood services are a boost to the needy rather than a common good.”

I agree with Rothschild that this rhetoric needs to shift. By focusing on universal pre-K as a program aimed at low-income families, de Blasio is missing two key opportunities:

  1. The chance to broaden support for universal pre-K by emphasizing that families of all economic backgrounds stand to benefit
  2. The opportunity to improve the quality of universal pre-K programs by getting families of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds to participate.

The Research Case for Universal, Integrated Pre-K

While most public pre-K programs in the past have been targeted exclusively at low-income or at-risk students, current research suggests that universal pre-K—and particularly socioeconomically integrated pre-K classrooms—may be a stronger investment.

Until recently, lawmakers and researchers have, somewhat understandably, focused their attentions on pre-K programs for low-income students—where the impact and return on investment is likely to be highest.

However, recent research on several existing universal preschool programs finds that middle-class children derive large benefits from attending quality pre-K programs. While low-income children still stand to benefit the most, this new evidence makes a good case for public spending on pre-K for middle-class students as well.

Furthermore, TCF research by Jeanne Reid of Columbia University’s Teachers College suggests students in socioeconomically integrated pre-K classrooms learn more than those in high-poverty programs. Looking at data from 11 state pre-K programs, Reid found that students of all socioeconomic backgrounds had greater language and math gains, on average, in classrooms with higher average socioeconomic status (SES).

Echoing extensive research on socioeconomic integration at the K-12 level, this finding suggests that placing low-income students in pre-K programs with a concentration of disadvantaged peers is less effective than giving them the chance to enroll in classrooms with higher average SES—an option made more viable under universal pre-K.

In addition, Reid found that income diversity itself can help improve quality in higher-SES pre-K classes. When combined with quality instruction, income diversity in a classroom improved children’s outcomes as compared to classrooms with similar average socioeconomic composition but less income diversity.

If middle-class parents worry that having more low-income students in a pre-K class will negatively affect their children, Reid’s research suggests the opposite: as long as the average socioeconomic composition of the class remains sufficiently high (an important, but not unattainable, condition), students actually learn more alongside peers of diverse economic backgrounds.

As the fight to fund universal pre-K progresses, de Blasio should be sure not to lose sight of the universal part of this plan. Poor and rich kids alike stand to benefit from free, high-quality, diverse pre-K programs.

Universal pre-K will be a stronger program if it attracts New Yorkers of all walks of life.