Funding universal pre-kindergarten is an economic and educational investment.
“The interactions pre school students get by being around other children their age is vital,” said Washington D.C. kindergarten teacher, Sola Zaccheus. “Preschool creates thinkers, problem solvers and readers.”
Zaccheus works at Arts and Technology PCS in Washington D.C. where all pre-k classes are full-day, and the early childhood educator already has some of her students reading before they reach kindergarten.
With more than 19 billion children under the age of five in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, pre-kindergarten education is in high demand. The District of Columbia and 38 states offer and fund some form of pre-k programming. More than 1.3 million attended these programs in 2012.
New York has offered universal pre-k since 1997, with a five-year commitment that funding programs for all four-year-olds would take place by 2002. NY four-year olds, about 120,000 according to the National Early Education Research Institute, are provided at least half-day programming.
The average annual costs for center-based pre-K care ranges from $4,312 in Mississippi to $12,355 in New York, according to a 2013 report by Child Care Aware America.
Nationwide, the costs of preschool vary but New York tops the list of least affordable states for a four-year-old. Annually, the state averages $12,355 in costs per child in a center-based program.
Although highest in costs, New York sits low on the list of spending with $3,707 of funding per student, while New Jersey shells out $11,659. Below, New York’s expenditures do not make rank in the nation’s top ten states in average spending per pupil.
The New York City Department of Education currently offers half-day and full day free preschool options at public school and community-based organizations, but competition is high and spots are limited.
For fall 2013, there are 20,000 full-day pre-K seats and 23,000 half-day seats. Each year, about 22,000 4-year-olds do not have the chance to enroll in Department of Education-backed pre-K programs. This deficit creates notoriously long wait lists and school overflow.
Harlem father, Craig Parker, ended up paying weekly for his daughter’s private pre-K program after dealing with public pre-K lotteries.
“The programs, they either cost more or you’re too late and have to wait forever,” said Parker.
A 2012 American Community Survey estimated 544,369 children under the age of five residing in New York City. With half a million little city residents, a new movement for truly universal preschool aims at making preschool education available to all families.
According to a study by the Campaign for Educational Equity and the Center for Children’s Initiatives, New York State would have to pay $225 million to fund universal preschool in its first year.
Currently, NY State gives school districts $385 million annually for pre-K.
The question of funding was a major campaign topic of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio who promised to raise taxes for New Yorkers earning $500,000 or more, in part, to create truly universal pre-K programs.
The mayor-elect’s taxation proposal, which would raise revenue amounting to $580 million, has the backing of a majority of statewide voters with 63 percent supporting the proposed tax hike, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
“New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s campaign issue, raising taxes on the well-to-do in the city to pay for improvements in education, wins solid approval in every corner of the state, except among Republicans,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
Although pre-K funding remains a debatable issue, Zaccheus is sure the benefits of early education should be a factor in the funding dilemma.
“Gross and fine motor skills development, emotional, and cognitive skills are promoted,” said Zaccheus. “ This time is truly invaluable and sets the foundation that all other education builds on.”