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New York City Announces Plan To Expand Universal Preschool To 3 Year Olds


New York City has announced a plan to provide free preschool for all 3-year-olds living in the city. It already does this for 4-year-olds. Now more and more research shows that high-quality preschool can be a huge factor in a child's later success. A few other places like Washington, D.C., already offer preschool for 3-year-olds but none on the scale that New York City envisions.

To explain the proposal and how it might work, we are joined by Yasmeen Khan. She covers education for member station WNYC. Thanks for joining us.

YASMEEN KHAN, BYLINE: Thank you. Good to be here.

SHAPIRO: Describe the type of preschool that the city is planning to pay for.

KHAN: Yeah. In essence, the city wants to add another grade to public schooling. So it's not daycare. You know, it's classrooms with trained teachers, a curriculum and lots of support and oversight from the city's Department of Education. That's the vision at least.

SHAPIRO: And this would be for more than 60,000 3-year-olds. How much would this cost, and how would the city roll it out?

KHAN: Sixty-thousand or 62,000 is the ultimate goal, but you know, it's a lofty one at the moment because that would cost about a billion dollars a year to provide preschool to all those kids. The city is laying the groundwork to meet that goal, but the concrete plan at the moment is a little smaller scale. The city is first going to start expanding preschool seats in two low-income school districts this fall.

I should say that New York City, you know, is one school system, but it's divided up into 32 community districts. And so the city is going to expand preschool two districts a year so that in four years it's offering preschool fully in eight districts. That would cover about 20,000 kids. And that's what the city says it can pay for on its own.

So the vision to provide citywide coverage is a little pie in the sky at the moment. They have a goal to get there by the fall of 2021, but they would need additional funds from the state and federal governments to do it.

SHAPIRO: Why does the city think this is a good investment? Tell us about the research behind it.

KHAN: You know, there's some consensus at this point that pre-K or preschool, when it's done well, that the benefits can be significant and potentially lasting. You know, pre-K lays the foundation for academic skills. It gets kids ready for school. But some research shows that there are benefits way later in life, like greater earnings, reduced health care costs, even reduced crime.

The key, though, is that the programs have to be high quality. And the city - it's going to have to kind of bake in a quality feedback loop into the preschool program. So that means lots of assessments and classroom observations, coaching of teachers, that kind of thing.

SHAPIRO: So we're talking about universal education for 3-year-olds. The city did this for 4-year-olds under a program that Mayor de Blasio rolled out four years ago. How has that program worked?

KHAN: It's worked quite well, honestly. The city is providing full-day pre-K to close to 70,000 kids. The quality in general is very good. The city definitely has improvements to make in that regard. But compared to other nationally recognized programs and where they were in the early stages, the city is pretty much on the right track. So the mayor knows that this is a major accomplishment. And he's running for re-election this year, so it makes a lot of sense that he wants to capitalize on that with this program for 3-year-olds.

SHAPIRO: Are there skeptics out there that the city may not be able to handle 62,000 new 3-year-olds in the education system?

KHAN: Yes, definitely. I mean I think the city is at this point even trying to convince itself that it can do this because two key factors will be, you know, hiring enough skilled teachers. The city will really have to cultivate an applicant pool. And second, you know, like everything else in New York City, space is a problem. The city is going to have to find classroom space. They're going to have to partner with community organizations that already offer preschool, or they're going have to build. And these first stages even of expanding preschool over the next four years will depend on capacity. You know, where the city has the space to do it - that's what's going to drive the expansion.

SHAPIRO: Yasmeen Khan covers education for WNYC. Thanks for joining us.

KHAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yasmeen Khan

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