This latest column focuses on New York City's expansion of public preschool for 3-year-olds. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
By this fall, the New York City Department of Education will serve 26,000 3-year-olds in public preschool — more than most states.
Other than the federal government’s gradual expansion of Head Start over the years, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s and Chancellor Richard A. Carranza’s announcement last week that the city’s 3-K program would spread to all five boroughs represents the largest-ever expansion of a publicly funded early learning program for 3-year-olds.
“We know that the city's youngest learners and their families benefit tremendously from getting in the classroom earlier, and I thank Mayor de Blasio for his leadership and support in growing early-childhood education each year,” Caranza said in a statement.
Only California, Texas and Illinois enroll more 3-year-olds in their statewide public pre-K programs. New Jersey is a close fourth with about 21,000. The expansion also provides further evidence that in some states, city governments are leading efforts to increase children’s access to early-childhood education.
New York City, however, was faced with a challenge last year that would have made it more difficult to add classrooms and teachers, especially since many preschoolers in the city are served in community-based centers, not schools.
Officials were accused of “underfunding” early-childhood education because teachers in community-based programs that contract with the city earned lower salaries than those in public schools — even when they had the same level of education. Some teachers came close to going on strike.
“Before the salary agreement was ratified, the system was just so unstable,” says Nora Moran, the director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents settlement houses offering preschool. The organization also published a report that drew attention to the issue.
But there are also community-based centers in the city that don't have contracts for classrooms and say the expansion efforts are hurting small, women- and minority-owned businesses.
"[Department of Education]-run centers have opened in close proximity to many of us," says Alice Mulligan, who runs a faith-based preschool program, Our Saviour’s Lutheran Preschool, in Brooklyn and is involved with a group called CBOs for Equity that has complained to the city. "Our children and staff have been poached. This has hurt communities. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears."
Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, a membership organization for those operating publicly funded programs, adds many family child care providers are also concerned they will lose children when parents can find a program for free. Her organization is advocating that most of the expansion funds go to providers outside of the public schools.
"Our whole position is let's make sure they are in a center-based program or family child care center," Anthony says, "You took our 4-year-olds. You took our teachers."
The challenges for private providers forced to compete with public programs are not unique to New York City. Policymakers have viewed "mixed-delivery" systems as a way to improve the quality of community-based centers because those centers typically have to meet higher standards to receive a contract. But hiring teachers with more education or improving playground equipment, for example, costs money, and not all centers are in a position to receive a contract.
Some research also shows when private centers participate in universal pre-K programs, there is a drop in available slots for infants and toddlers — which experts say is already in limited supply.
The benefits of two years
The expansion — which this fall will include sites in Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens — could, however, inspire other cities and states to open up more classrooms for 3-year-olds. As public pre-K programs have grown over the past 20 years, most states have focused on adding classrooms for 4-year-olds.
“But developmental science tells us, that from birth to age 3 is actually the time of most prolific brain growth and plasticity,” says Cara Sklar, the deputy director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a Washington-based think tank. “Early development, even before a child's 3rd birthday, provides the foundation for all future learning, behavior and health.”
Enrolling 3-year-olds also allows schools to better integrate preschoolers with special needs — which are served in public schools under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — into regular classrooms and “fully implement inclusion,” adds W. Steven Barnett, senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), based at Rutgers University.
Studies find children from low-income households benefit more from two years of preschool than from one — in school and later in life. Research on Chicago’s Child-Parent Centers, a long-running model, shows children who attended for two years were less likely to receive special education, to be retained by 8th grade, to experience abuse or neglect, or to commit crimes as adults.
“It certainly gives you a better shot at reducing the achievement gap for kids at kindergarten entry, and it allows you to catch more problems earlier,” Barnett says.
Understanding ‘developmental milestones’
Experts stress, however, there are distinct developmental differences between 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, and as a result, the classrooms and curriculum should be different.
“Educators should have specialized knowledge of child development and understand how to facilitate developmentally appropriate learning based on the child’s age and which developmental milestones the child is approaching,” Sklar says.
Ellen Frede, senior co-director of NIEER, adds officials might want to consider having lower class sizes for 3-year-olds than they do for 4-year-olds. Schools might also have to retrofit more classrooms to provide bathroom facilities.
Enrolling more 3-year-olds also allows for mixed-age groups, with 4-year-olds serving as role models for their younger peers.
“Both sets of children benefit from this,” Frede says. “The younger ones have the benefit of stepping into a classroom where the older children know the routine, and the older children learn social perspective-taking as they interact with the younger children and need to modify their language to be understood.”
Anthony suggests, however, that centers might be more likely to put a 3-year-old in a classroom with older children if he or she is about to turn 4.
The city is expected to contract with some family child care providers to meet the demand. While Frede notes the benefits of those arrangements, including parental choice and a more home-like environment, she adds the “body of evidence” regarding the benefits of preschool focuses on high-quality center-based programs.
“There is virtually no evidence that this is true for [family child care] or even what the program should look like to get benefits,” she says. “I am not saying it's a bad choice, just worried from a policy and practical perspective.”