What NYC Parents Need to Know About Universal Pre-K

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Photo: Pool/2014 Getty Images

The political fight over universal pre-K is over; now comes the hard part. In less than two years, Bill de Blasio promises that New York City will be able to offer full-day pre-K seats to 73,000 children — adding, in effect, a full grade to the nation’s largest school system. This kind of project, of course, is a recipe for confusion and anxiety, most notably for parents of future pre-K kids. With five months before the start of the school year, parents still don’t know where there’s space, if they’ll get in, and what exactly their kid’s pre-K program will be like. Here, an attempt at answering some of those plaguing questions.

What are the odds of getting a seat?

The numbers are daunting. The city has just 20,000 pre-K spaces at the moment; de Blasio says the next 33,000 will come in September, just five months from now, and the final 20,000 the following September. So while you have a better chance at getting a spot than if you were trying last year, nothing’s guaranteed until the program is entirely up and running.

If my kid gets a seat, will it be at an actual school?

Step one of the city’s expansion plan is to try to add classrooms to existing programs that have the space. Step two is to convert existing half-day pre-K programs into full-day programs. But those two steps won’t get them nearly all the way there. Some parts of town won’t be getting any new actual public-school seats at all — like District 2 in the Upper East Side, which is already impossible to get your kid into. Parents are already complaining about that, as is Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who says as of now, there are more public-school seats needed on West Side, too, and downtown, and Washington Heights.

So where will my kid’s pre-K be?

Even now, the city doesn’t have all its pre-K slots in actual public schools. About 3,300 of the current 20,000 pre-K spaces are really in classrooms run by CBOs* — community-based organizations like the Children’s Aid Society or Catholic Charities. Step three of the expansion plan is to find more space like this.  The city plans on maintaining this ratio: Sixty percent of the new seats will be provided for by CBOs.

What are those CBO locations like?

It’s not easy to generalize. Some are private schools that offer a city pre-K curriculum and are partially reimbursed by the city for the part of the day they teach it. Others are run by city child-welfare agencies or hosted in public housing. Still others are run by nonprofits like the Union Settlement Association, or any number of other community groups.

This haphazard array isn’t what everyone envisions when they think of universal pre-K. De Blasio has argued that the reliance on CBOs is a good thing because the plan won’t put too much of a strain on the Department of Education infrastructure.  He also likes how enmeshed the CBO’s are in the community, particularly immigrant communities.

How do we know all these brand-new pre-K classes are any good?

The city says that within a month, they’ll be announcing 15,000 more seats in CBOs. Parents turned away from traditional school settings will have to be convinced that the CBO spots are every bit as good. The question, of course, is how to maintain quality with such a fast expansion — particularly at the CBOs, which until now could get away with not having state-certified teachers.

The DOE is promising quality-control measures, including a platoon of teaching “coaches” who will supervise new pre-Ks. Will they find enough good teachers in such a short time? A lot of that might depend on money. As the Union Settlement Association’s David Nocenti has noted, the starting salary for a certified teacher in a public school pre-K is 25 percent higher than that of a same-credentialed teacher in a nonprofit CBO pre-K ($45,530 versus $36,542). De Blasio supports pay parity, but hasn’t supplied details yet on how that might happen.

Will applying for a pre-K seat for my kid drive me just a little crazy, or a lot?

Parents of 4-year-olds are already in the full throes of a slightly confusing application process. The deadline for public-school slots is April 23, and the first CBO application deadlines are expected to be sometime in May.** But these are soft, Obamacare-style deadlines: City Hall is trying to get the word out that new seats are being added all the time, which means filling out separate applications and checking back constantly to see what is available near them.

In early June, parents are expected to hear back about public-school seats, and will get direct communication about what the CBO options are.  That’s when we’ll all learn if families are satisfied with what’s been presented to them.

How do we know this all is really going to happen?

For what it’s worth, the mayor has staked his legacy on it. Universal pre-K was the centerpiece of de Blasio’s agenda since long before he ever had a chance of winning the mayoralty. He made that goal, along with the end of stop-and-frisk, the cornerstone of his first hundred days, and finding the money for it triggered the mayor’s first spat with the governor.

And yet all that drama may just have been the prelude. Since January, the mayor has assembled a working group of staff from the DOE, Fire Department, Department of Health, children’s services, public housing, and economic development to certify expansions of existing space and to start identifying new spaces. City Hall is trying to exude confidence: “It’s a little bit less than a moonshoot we’re planning here,” one source says, “because we’ve had 16 years of false starts on pre-K and an infrastructure that’s ready for it.” That doesn’t change the fact that the result will be not so much something new as a grand scaling up of a patchwork system. Can it ever be any other way in New York? Everyone, the mayor included, is counting on the patch to hold.

*This post originally stated that about 12,000 of the current 20,000 pre-K spaces are in classrooms run by CBOs. We regret the error.

**This post previously indicated that the CBO application deadline was expected in May. The first deadlines are expected then.