New York City Mayor Goes All-In On Free Preschool : NPR Ed NPR's Robert Siegel talks with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about the early days of his effort to provide free, high-quality preschool to all of the city's 4-year-olds.

New York City Mayor Goes All-In On Free Preschool

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In New York City, 65,000 preschoolers will be among those experiencing the first day of school tomorrow. They're taking advantage of New York City's new universal pre-K program. To put that number 65,000 4-year-olds in context, that is more than all the public school students in all grades in either Washington, D.C., or Boston. Universal, free, high-quality pre-K was a key campaign promise of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. And when I spoke with the mayor today, I asked him what high-quality pre-K means.

BILL DE BLASIO: Well, it means we're working with a Common Core curriculum. Our 4-year-olds, they'll do all the fun things 4-year-olds love to do. They'll paint and they'll sing and they'll count numbers out loud, but at the same time, it'll be part of a very carefully calibrated curriculum to prepare them to be on-target for their next experience up ahead in kindergarten.

SIEGEL: Does high quality mean that there's a teacher with a degree in early childhood education?

DE BLASIO: Yes. We have certified teachers and teachers who are specialists in early childhood. And in fact, we've had tremendous success. We put out a national call for the best and brightest early childhood teachers. We got a huge response - three qualified teachers for every one position that we had here. So I think there's a great sense here that something very special is happening when we can take a whole school system of kids - every background, every neighborhood - and get them all on a strong start at the same time.

SIEGEL: I want to pursue that every neighborhood. A couple of weeks ago, the city acknowledged that despite a lot of recruitment effort and outreach, sign-ups in some low-income neighborhoods have been low and there are vacant places. Why do you think that is?

DE BLASIO: I think we have to keep reaching out to parents to let them know how important this is for their child. So, for example, a lot of parents have informal arrangements with family members or neighbors to watch their children. And that's understandable if you don't have any other option. What that means a lot of the time is the child is parked in front of a TV set for example. Well, we're explaining to parents that if you really want your child to have a bright future, give them the opportunity to get a real strong educational start with a full-day pre-K program. For some parents, that's just not something they had thought about before or something they experienced as a child. And so it takes time to convince them it'll work. The word-of-mouth impact, the impact of parents talking to other parents, talking to family members, neighbors - I think that's going to really pump up the numbers even in the next few weeks and certainly in the years to come.

SIEGEL: A Berkeley study found that there are more pre-K seats - or centers, I believe - in the wealthiest New York City zip codes than in the poorest, even though there are more 4-year-olds in the poorer neighborhood.

DE BLASIO: That study's deeply flawed and I have to tell you a truly universal program, which we've created, is giving much more opportunity for folks in low-income neighborhoods than they've ever had before. When I came into office, there were 20,000 kids in full-day pre-K. Again, tomorrow, we have 65,000 signed up...

SIEGEL: But aren't a lot of those kids, then, who are in the 65,000, kids from families that in fact were or would be paying for pre-K and are now taking advantage of the new entitlement?

DE BLASIO: I am certain - I've talked to a lot of middle-class and even upper-middle-class parents who are benefiting from this program, and I think they have a right to it as well. It's something that should be - again, as universal as first grade or kindergarten once were, this now should be - and the fact it's universal, I believe, actually lifts all boats. And I think even for middle-class families - a lot of middle-class families in this town are stretched economically. This is the kind of benefit they deserve for their children, but also for their household budgets.

SIEGEL: How soon should pre-K, in your view, become mandatory, and is the scholarship on the benefit of the lasting - the lasting educational benefits of pre-K so solid that it could just defy starting public school at 4?

DE BLASIO: I think that is the way of the future. I think the scholarship is very strong on this and very consistent.

SIEGEL: Some would say there's much disputed scholarship on this.

DE BLASIO: I don't believe that, certainly not from all the work we've been doing here and all the experts I've consulted with. I think the jury is back on pre-K. It's been proven to have a huge impact on a child's development. I think one day in this country it can and should be available to all. And I hope that the example of New York City will inspire. I mean, look, this is a tough place to do this, but it's working. So to quote the old song - if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. I hope this example in New York City proves this is something that can be achieved in each and every community in the country.

SIEGEL: Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York, thanks for talking with us.

DE BLASIO: Thank you so much.

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