General Education

Launching Universal Pre-K in New York City

Launching Universal Pre-K in New York City
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Carolyn Heneghan September 2, 2014

New York City is on a mission to provide all pre-K aged children, regardless of income or ability, with full-day, public pre-kindergarten programs throughout the five boroughs.

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Parents want to give their children every opportunity to better their life and future, particularly when it comes to education. Between reading before bed and playing Little Einsteins videos, parents try to give their children educational experiences as early as possible.

For many, pre-kindergarten (pre-K) is the next step. In 1997, the state of New York passed legislation to institute a half day of pre-K for all four-year-olds whose parents wanted it. Until this year, however, the New York City pre-K system has had too few available seats to meet families’ needs, leaving many children without access to this opportunity.

To respond to the situation, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran for mayor on a campaign to expand early childhood and after-school opportunities, successfully won funding to add universal full-day, pre-K programs across the city. While this expansion will be phased in over the next couple of years, the city will see many more public pre-K openings this fall than ever before, housed in public and charter schools, community-based organizations (CBOs), and private preschools. The result will be that more children of all socioeconomic groups will be able to attend local pre-K classes.

Here’s what you need to know about universal pre-K in NYC:

What is universal pre-k?

As defined by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, pre-K is a specific educational program aimed at four-year-olds (and sometimes three-year-olds) to prepare them to enter kindergarten.

The universal pre-K system in New York City will provide access to public pre-K programs to any children who are eligible by age (the children must turn four in 2014), regardless of ability or income. Historically, New York City pre-K programs have been extremely competitive to get into, with many of the available seats offered by private providers. This has resulted in children from low-income families being the least represented in existing programs. Universal pre-K would expand availability of public, pre-K seats so these children have the same chances as their more affluent peers to kick off their formal education early.

Universal pre-k in NYC

What does this mean for the children of NYC? With $300 million in state funds to support the plan, the expansion aims to offer 53,000 full-day pre-K seats in 2014, more than double the number offered last year. The goal is for the NYC Department of Education (DOE) to work its way up to 73,000 seats in 2015, enough for every four-year-old in the city to attend a full-day program. As of last week, 50,407 children have been enrolled in the program, with more seats being rapidly added as the school year’s start approaches.

Because public schools do not have the space or resources to take in all of these new students, more than 1,000 private locations have committed to housing about 60 percent of the seats. Some of the providers participating in the program are community-based organizations, day care centers, and mom-and-pop storefronts, while others will be run by city child-welfare agencies or hosted in public housing. The rest are made up of half-day pre-K programs converted into full-day programs.

As for the application process, while some parents found it to be confusing, the enrollment numbers have been steadily increasing. The deadline for public school slots was in April, 2014, and community-based organization applications were accepted into mid-July. In early June, parents found out about the public school placements and were given information about other CBO options if they did not get a seat in their public school choice. Nonetheless, some programs still have openings, and you can see availability here.

Next year, when the city adds another 20,000 seats, parents can expect similar application processes. For more information on how to enroll your child in a public pre-K program in New York City, click here.

What are the benefits of universal pre-k?

The clearest benefit of attending pre-K is the effect on a child’s education. It is generally accepted that children who take part in high-quality, early childhood programs are better prepared for later schooling, and even for entering the workforce as young adults.

For example, one study covering Chicago’s preschool program shows that at-risk youth who receive early childhood education are less likely to drop out of school and more likely to go to college.

A crucial element to universal pre-K is its attempt to close the achievement gap between high-and low-income children. This includes gaps in language proficiency seen as early as 18 months, as well as gaps in test scores later in life.

Another benefit of pre-K initiatives is saving money over time. According to the report Effective Early Childhood Programs: Turning Knowledge Into Action, every dollar spent on early education saves $7 in future costs by “reducing societal and economic costs later in the child’s life, while also increasing social and economic mobility for the children who receive it.” These effects include:

  • Higher individual incomes
  • Increased tax revenues
  • Reduced school expenditures (due to lower grade retention and special education)
  • Reduced criminal justice expenditures

NYC businesses, who are encouraged to support early childhood education programs, will benefit when these programs introduce an improved workforce and larger pool of candidates from which to choose employees. As those who take part in early childhood education programs may end up with higher incomes, this additional income would then generate more economic activity for businesses and greater tax revenues for communities, bringing the initiative full circle.

Drawbacks of universal pre-k

The most pressing issues right now seem to be whether or not New York City will be able to make this all happen in such a time crunch. These last few months have been a scramble to add seats, institutions, materials, and teachers to the program, while, at the same time, making sure that all the classrooms are safe and reliable. Sites are not allowed to open unless they pass a health and safety inspection, and while the city has been able to quickly resolve some of the issues and bring down the most serious level of violations to five from 33, there is some worry that certain schools will not be ready by September 4 when the school year begins. City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who has only vetted 30 percent of the pre-K contracts, has voiced some concern for student safety.

Others have wondered if the city will have enough teachers and whether they will be sufficiently trained as the program starts. Yet, the Department of Education has made strides towards acquiring greater numbers of credentialed teachers to support the program. Early criticism for universal pre-k emphasized the fact that most pre-K teachers in CBOs were often paid less than teachers in public or charter schools. Additionally, many of the CBO teachers were not licensed.

However, in March, the DOE announced that it would be providing various fast-track opportunities to help teachers in CBO programs earn credentials, from offering stipends or help with tuition to creating a program based on the NYC Teaching Fellows program. This initiative was coupled with the announcement that state-funding would be used to pay CBO teachers competitive salaries, and has helped boost pre-K teaching applications by 55 percent since March, 2014.

Still, there are concerns that remain regarding the programs. For example, despite some help from the DOE, educators are focusing on whether principals will be able to effectively guide and assess pre-K teachers.

Another important question is what type of universal pre-K education will these programs provide. Will they be straightforward fact-memorization, skills-oriented, traditional curriculums, or will they teach children to explore subjects they are interested in and ask the questions that foster critical thinking?

An additional limitation is that the program is in its first year and not yet able to offer seats for every pre-K aged child in New York City. As a result, some families may need to opt for half-day programs or those outside their district.

Finally, some are concerned that these programs may be little more than glorified daycare centers, where the engaging educational aspects of the program that parents expect will not be put into practice. This is already the case with many preschool programs, so these new public efforts have to prove themselves to be worth taxpayers’ dollars and the application and acceptance process for parents and their children.

Planning Next Steps

NYC parents of pre-K children need to keep in mind both the benefits and drawbacks when planning to enroll their children in a local pre-K program. Because the expansion of universal pre-K is just beginning in NYC, teachers, parents, and researchers won’t be able to uncover the actual effects of introducing this program to children for a few years.

Still, the government’s support and push for this solution in early childhood education addresses the needs of families across all sectors of New York City, and the progress has been impressive. As Mayor DeBlasio said recently, “We will have the largest number of children in full-day pre-K in the history of New York City.”


Are principals prepared to evaluate pre-K teachers? (2014, August 26). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Chalkbeat New York

City plans Teaching Fellows-inspired program for pre-K teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Chalkbeat New york

III, W. (2014, March 13). Do Right by Our Children: Enact Universal Pre-K. Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Huffington Post

Investing in Our Children. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from American Progress

Kohn, A. (2014, January 31). But What Kind of Universal Pre-K? Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Huffington Post

Landry, S. (2005, January 1). Effective Early Childhood Programs. Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Children’s Learning Institute

Low-Income Toddlers Fall Months Behind Wealthier Peers In Learning Language. (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Think Progress

Mayor Announces Plans to Equalize Salaries for DOE & CBO UPK Teachers. (n.d.). Retrieved April 15, 2014 from NYNP

Pre-K: What Exactly Is It? (n.d.). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from NAEYC

Stringer: 70 percent of pre-K contracts haven’t been vetted. (2014, August 28). Retrieved August 29, 2014, from Chalkbeat New York

Taylor, K. (2014, August 28). In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell. Retrieved August 29, 2014, from The New York Times


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