Big Problems for Universal Pre-K

Thousands of unionized city pre-K teachers have authorized a strike, tentatively set for May 2, over the issue of pay equity. They’ve got a real gripe — and it’s hardly the only problem with what’s easily Mayor de Blasio’s most popular program.

District Council 1707 says de Blasio’s not living up to his “America’s Fairest Big City” talk. Its members work in community-based, city-funded day-care, preschool and Head Start programs and want to be paid on par with their unionized public-school peers. Salaries start at about $42,000 for “community” pre-K teachers, vs. $59,000 at school-run programs. And the overall pay gap is estimated to be as high as 60 percent.

De Blasio told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer recently that there “should not be a double standard,” but there plainly is one. That’s quite the black mark for a progressive still dipping his toes into presidential-primary waters, especially since the lower-paid workers are often minority, even as most public-school teachers are white.

And behind it is a huge gap in funding: The city pays community-group and charter-school pre-K programs $9,800 per pupil; public-school programs get at least twice that, and perhaps three times as much if you add in district-level costs.

Yet city-run programs enroll 31,000 toddlers vs. 46,000 in community and charter-school pre-K. If the community programs are as high-quality as de Blasio says he demands, then the city’s wasting hundreds of millions a year by offering pre-K through the public schools.

At the very least, the gap has posed major challenges to community programs that were operating long before de Blasio moved to “universal pre-K”: It’s ever harder for nonprofits to recruit and retain certified teachers when the city Department of Education is constantly luring them away.

The shortages are growing acute when it comes to handling the needs of vulnerable special-ed toddlers at these city-funded nonprofits.

Meanwhile, the privileged position of DOE pre-K programs is causing other problems. The parents association at MS 442, a highly diverse rising-star school in Park Slope, recently put out a cry for help because a pre-K program is getting an unfair amount of the space in their shared building.

The area for pre-K works out to 50 square feet per toddler, including separate rooms for art, science and a library. MS 442 gets just 38 square feet per sixth-to-eighth grader — and no room for a library or dedicated science lab. Oh, and DOE wants the middle school to take more students (up from 305 to as many as 369) next year, which would force it to lose its art room.

The MS 442 parents complain that all this constitutes a blatant failure of the mayor’s “Equity and Excellence for All” agenda, and that’s plainly true.

Rather than traveling to New Hampshire and Iowa to brag about the success of his universal pre-K program, de Blasio should be spending his time at home — making sure his “success” doesn’t destabilize the rest of the education system, including early-childhood programs that worked well before he ever touched the issue.

Read the editorial here.

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