With the inaugural behind him, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio begins the push to implement his signature campaign promise: taxing the rich to fund a universal pre-kindergarten program. To do so, he will face opposition far and wide– from policy wonks to parents to his own Democratic Party.
A radical left-wing progressive, Bill de Blasio won the votes of New Yorkers with an array of potentially economically lethal policy initiatives that spoke to the heart of the city’s far left that now longed for a second David Dinkins era. Paramount among those is de Blasio’s plan for universal pre-kindergarten education, an attempt to force poorer families to give up their children to public education at an earlier time and, the argument goes, keep them as far away from toxic environments as possible. The plan, as de Blasio put it in his inauguration speech, is to “ask the very wealthy to pay a little more in taxes so that we can offer full-day universal pre-K and after-school programs for every middle school student. And when we say ‘a little more,’ we can rightly emphasize the ‘little.'”
What de Blasio calls “a little” is an increase in taxes for those making over $500,000 from 39% to 4.4%, an average of $973 per person a year. This is an increase from his initially proposed plan last summer, and there is no guarantee de Blasio would not reassess the numbers in the future. De Blasio does little to hide that this is paramount to wealth redistribution, and that he supports it. And while universal preschool was not his idea– President Obama was touting it long before– New York City is one of the few places where there are enough of both rich and poor to make the program a reality, potentially devastating the city’s economy, the parent-child relationship of those forced into the program, and the relationship between New Yorkers and the Democratic Party, a moderate party statewide relative to those living in the city.
That is to say that de Blasio faces obstacles here bigger than himself and the self-evident failure of every socialist policy every implemented (see this brief overview at Marxists.org that they apparently did not notice does nothing to promote their cause). He needs to figure out exactly what teachers will teach thousands of children who previously were considered too young to be in school at all. He needs to convince a campaign-mode Andrew Cuomo to raise taxes in an election year and have voters still like him. And he needs to start planning a damage control response to the sociological consequences of tearing every parent from their child at such a young age.
The question of the universal pre-k curriculum is a broad, mostly unanswered one. Yes, de Blasio mentioned some specific education reforms on his website– things like allowing cell phones in the classroom and free breakfast– but the information on what these young children will be learning leaves the researcher an image of a room full of children and a teacher twiddling his thumbs. Citing the failure of the federal Head Start program, the New York Post argues that the excess of “warm and fuzzies” in the de Blasio plan and lack of actual substantive information on what the program does threatens to give the city “the worst of all worlds: higher taxes for another spending program that essentially adds up to little more than free day care.”
Perhaps this lack of detail is what has made state-level Democratic officials so hesitant to give their own specifics on how they will support the program. Or maybe it’s the 2014 midterm elections. Mayor de Blasio did predict that Governor Andrew Cuomo would support him, and did get some words to the effect of the program being “exactly right.” What he didn’t get was any concrete explanation on how Albany would support the program, if at all. Last November, Cuomo promised that financing the program was “a conversation we will have next year.” He has said nothing about the proposal to tax the rich to pay for the program– in fact, Cuomo is said to want to lower taxes this year– and de Blasio does not have the authority to unilaterally implement that plan. The New York Times predicted as early as last August that the plan had little chance of succeeding, because de Blasio is so far to the left of most of his colleagues in the state. And the New York Post sees Cuomo’s silence as a set-up for an all-out “tax war” between the Mayor and Governor, the kind of civil war that Democrats had not had since the 1968 national convention.
There is hope yet for Democrats to come to a resolution that would create this program, however. And should de Blasio overcome all previous obstacles to set the plan into motion, he would face an entirely new set of problems: the potentially devastating effect of such an expensive program on those taxed and those forced to make their kids use it.
The first challenge is making the money count by ensuring that parents actually send their kids to preschool. The Times notes that pre-K is not mandatory for parents, so spending the money on the program might mean that the city (and the state) is paying for students to attend school that simply won’t be there. That money would do nothing to help any children, neither those who are not in the classroom nor those sitting before teachers. Aside from having “to persuade large numbers of low-income families to sign up for extracurricular programs,” a steep challenge, the Times argues that the program would also require de Blasio to “remake the city’s patchwork of early childhood and tutoring services, which vary in quality and have limits on growth.” This is in large part due to the consequences of forcing parents to send their children to school at such a young age and at a time when many parents are still at work, unable to pick their children up but also unable to send them on their own or with a friend.
New York would not be the first city to implement a universal pre-K program, but as an urban one it puts its children in high risk. Education Week analyzed the effects of universal pre-K programs on Georgia and Oklahoma and found only positive effects in rural area. Yet even more relevant to the New York Times‘ point, the demand for early-childhood care after school increased by 25% in Georgia and 30% in Oklahoma. These larger, more rural areas managed to use such a demand to spur the private childcare economy, but in New York, it would mean de Blasio also has to spend millions on a government-funded program to take care of children, especially given that the children being compelled to go to preschool education are the children of poorer families who would not be able to pay for the extra childcare. Naturally, the stress on a poor family that now has to concern itself with finding cheap, trustworthy childcare while de Blasio figures out how to build another boondoggle in the next few years to fill this gap cannot engender a positive environment for the child, who now spends less time with his or her parents and has a routine that can best be described as “incomplete.”
The bad news for New York City is that de Blasio’s office has the power to implement this plan at least halfway, but the silver lining is that de Blasio’s proposal is too progressive even for most Democrats in the state legislature, and– through his silence– one can assume for Cuomo, as well. With the year just beginning, watching the delicate dance between Democrats up for reelection and the newly-elected mayor of the biggest city in America will be a sight to see, with the lives of thousands of New York children hanging in the balance.