What a bandwagon there is for full-day pre-kindergarten. First, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned on it, then New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered to implement it statewide at state expense. Then President Barack Obama made it part of his State of the Union speech, saying his administration would work with private-sector partners to make it available for more kids.
"Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education," the president said.
Full-day pre-K might be nice to have, but it's not a cure-all.
We see Cuomo and Obama's full-day pre-K push as more politics than policy. It's about convincing the parents of 3- and 4-year-olds to vote for the Democratic Party.
In New York City, full-day pre-K should probably happen. People there voted in a mayor who had made it a major plank in his platform, with a tax on the rich to pay for it. Plus, New York City's mayor is supposed to be in charge of the school system, whereas New York's governor and the U.S. president aren't.
For the rest of the state, there are improvements that could be made to the existing universal pre-K (UPK) system.
However, we think it's far from a top priority. Our education system is already in a huge state of upheaval, especially with the implementation of the Common Core.
Plus, for the last few years, states like New York have been leaning hard on local school districts to cut spending. They've cut state aid, partly by playing with the formula for it, and the tax cap, even though it can be overridden, has been a remarkably effective tool at the ballot box. School districts that stayed under the cap limit have seen their budgets pass. Those that exceeded it have largely seen voters shoot them down, even when voters approved the same or higher increases before the days of the cap.
As a result, schools in some areas ran out of fat to cut and are dropping teachers, meaning bigger classes and fewer offerings. That's the kind of thing that tends to make education, as a whole, worse.
With the basics endangered by budget cuts, it's hard to add new stuff. Maybe full-day UPK should wait. When there's money and head space to deal with it, though, here are some suggestions:
Pre-K, if it's offered, should be funded on a long-term basis, not to be frozen as soon as the governor's political points have gone cold.
Home rule is important. One-size-fits-all full-day pre-K wouldn't work for every community. Many have private day-care providers that fill the need and would be put out of business by a state UPK.
What about Head Start? This 49-year-old federal child-care program for low-income students is funded but doesn't have certified teachers the way UPK does. It wouldn't be easy, but someone should try to figure out how these programs could be integrated -maybe a network that ties in private providers, too. Otherwise, there's a lot of duplication.
To truly improve our pre-K system, we'll have to take it slow and smart, not rush it the way New York did with Common Core.
Still, pre-K is less essential a service than K-12 education, and the latter shouldn't have to suffer for it.