The importance of early education for a child’s healthy development academically, socially and physically is undeniable; but at what price? New York City Council speaker and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn recently announced an initiative to offer middle class families subsidized loans for day care and preschool, starting with 40 loans in the first year. These loans would add up to thousands of dollars, but in exchange middle and upper-middle class New Yorkers (with an income between $80,000-200,000 per year) would have the ability to send their children to the preschools they may be unable to afford on their own. While this initiative would benefit families well above the national median income, should it have to come with such a hefty price tag?
This initiative makes it clear that even for families with relatively stable incomes, accessible, affordable, good preschool is difficult to obtain. Though New York state provides more preschool slots than many other states, this state-funded preschool plan has not met its goal of universal access. The federal Head Start program is targeted to the lowest income families, minimizing the options available. With the middle class already struggling to provide for their families in the current economic state of our country, quality educational opportunities should be more accessible for all. Not only does good early childhood education benefit the child in the long run by contributing to their development and future productivity, but it also benefits the parents of the child when it is designed to provide effective child care as well.
Of course, this is not just a problem for the middle class. Most young children in poverty do not attend a quality preschool; full-day, year round child care of high quality is even more unaffordable. A recent Bloomberg article points out that one “hidden” cost of the sequester is parents who are unable to maintain employment when their children’s Head Start slots are cut. With good full day preschool/daycare, parents can work a full day and not have to worry about sacrificing their already busy work schedules for their child’s future.
Access to quality pre-K is a concern for families regardless of income. Somewhat surprisingly, even expensive private preschools are not guaranteed to be high quality programs. The frequent attacks on public education in the media not withstanding, the pre-K field clearly shows that such public programs as Head Start are of higher average quality than even those purchased by the best educated, highest income parents. There is clearly good reason to make sure the children of middle-class families have access to good pre-K. However, a better solution than private loans for programs of uncertain quality is public support to bring good pre-K to all children in the state so that all children have an equal opportunity to learn.
New York City has a shortage of pre-K slots according to a report from Public Advocate (and mayoral candidate) Bill deBlasio. Demand for slots outstrips availability by 3.5-1 to 5-1 depending on the borough. The citizens of New York City would benefit tremendously from a quality truly universal preschool program accessible to all income levels. The middle class already struggles enough; public policy should make it easier for them to ensure their children get a high quality education. Early ages in a child’s life are the most important for learning, and while education at this level should be valued, it should also be affordable and accessible to all. Instead of creating more private educational debt, New York should be expanding public educational opportunities.
– Michelle Horowitz, Research Assistant, NIEER
– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER