WSJ: Mayor Trumpets High Demand for Pre-K

Leslie Brody, The Wall Street Journal, 3.17.2015

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio touted the city’s expansion of free, full-day preschool on Tuesday, saying families signed up almost 22,000 children for next fall on the first day they could apply.

A new online-enrollment system, which lets parents rank their choices in district and community-based centers through the same process, made its debut on Monday. The city said 6,500 signed up on the first day last year, though that figure included only requests for seats in district classrooms.

At a news conference at the Boys and Girls Harbor preschool in Upper Manhattan, Mr. de Blasio said the high number of requests showed families had become more conscious of the value of prekindergarten.

It is “an amazing example of how much this has captured the imagination of parents,” he said. Those who apply by April 24 will get offers in June.

Many educators have applauded the mayor’s efforts to provide free, full-day preschool for all 4-year-olds, and have cheered the program’s rapid growth. About 53,000 children are now in full-day public preschool, more than double the number last year. The mayor hopes to have about 70,000 children in full-day seats in September.

But some preschool experts caution that quality varies among the centers. Some community-based providers also say they suffer from high turnover as staffers hop to jobs at district schools, which abide by teachers’ union salary scales. Teachers say such churn can be hard on young children, who thrive on consistent relationships with caring adults.

City officials said they had rigorous standards for preschools and accepted only 55% of those seeking to join the program. They said enough centers have been approved to offer about 75,000 seats, but they are still looking for more in areas where demand outstrips supply, such as parts of Brooklyn and central Queens.

The mayor’s efforts to include more religious institutions has drawn mixed reactions.

Last year, some yeshivas didn’t join the expansion on grounds that the six-hour, 20-minute schedule was too draining for children who would also be attending after-school religious instruction. Those schools sought five-hour days instead. City officials countered that longer preschool days were important for children’s development.

A compromise, forged in February for the coming school year, will allow yeshivas and other religious groups to have more flexible schedules. They will be able to offer six shorter days a week, using weekends or federal holidays to ensure each week has 31 hours and 40 minutes of preschool.

Preschools next year can also have a six-hour, 40-minute day, which includes a midday break for “nonprogram activities” such as prayers, as long as they are optional.

The changes left some advocates on both sides of the issue dissatisfied.

“Anyone with a 4-year-old knows it’s extremely difficult to send a kid to school six days a week,” said Maury Litwack, director of state political affairs for the Orthodox Union. “This core constituency has been given lip service on changes being made to the program.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the changes raised concerns about the potential for government funding of religious education.

“The prayer breaks are the most egregious example of overstepping, of breaching the separation of church and state,” she said. “Smack in the middle of the 4-year-olds’ day, those who are of the flock will be taken to pray, and those who are not will be left behind.”

City officials said all children who don’t join in prayers must be given meaningful activities, and taxpayer dollars will be used only for secular instruction. Ms. Lieberman asked the city to audit centers to make sure they comply.

This year, a range of religious groups are providing public preschool to about 5,000 children at some 100 sites, city officials said. Most are in Catholic centers, though about 40 Jewish schools are also involved, serving 1,300 children in full-day seats. 

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