4. Focus on Schools

Illustration by Mario Wagner

Good public schools are the main way any city serves and nurtures its middle class, and education—universal pre-K and expanded after-school programs—is the central plank of De Blasio’s inequality agenda.

About pre-K …
Universal pre-K has actually been on the books in New York State since 1997, but it’s never been fully implemented. De Blasio wants to fund 68,000 full-day pre-K slots, an expansion that will cost $340 million a year. “The idea would be not to build more bureaucracy,” he said during his campaign, “but to build the middle class, to give kids the kind of educational foundation they need to move forward.” Can universal pre-K really deliver that?

The evidence is decidedly mixed. Advocates often point to two famous and famously positive studies on the benefits of early-childhood education—the Perry Pre-School and Abecedarian Projects. “But those were multiyear programs, they involved parenting interventions at home, and they were from the sixties and seventies,” says Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. Whitehurst suggests that a more recent study on the nationwide Head Start preschool program (a closer model for De Blasio’s proposal) is more representative: Tracking 5,000 students who enrolled in Head Start in 2002, the researchers found that “there were initial positive impacts from having access to Head Start, but by the end of third grade there were very few impacts found … in any of the four domains of cognitive, social-emotional, health, and parenting practices.”

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, points to follow-up research that shows improvements in Head Start programs that followed George W. Bush–era educational reforms. But the bottom line is that pre-K of any kind is glorified day care unless the right resources and accountability measures are put in place—and that’s far from a sure thing in New York, or anywhere else. —E.B.

Charter schools, testing, and curriculum are fiercely debated among reformers—major moves on any of them would start whole civil wars—and New York already spends more per pupil (nearly $22,000 each year) than any comparable urban school system in the country.* But here are some more-targeted proposals for how to improve public education.

Extend school hours.
Charter schools have long advocated keeping kids in school later, and, in Houston, where economist and education reformer Roland Fryer tested the theory, alongside other charter initiatives, in public schools, math achievement gaps are on track to close in three years.

Data show that schools integrated by race, class, and aptitude outperform those segregated along any lines—in general, the negative effects on the well-off and high-achieving are negligible compared with the big gains by everyone else, and more money spent in high-poverty areas isn’t as important as a seat in an integrated classroom. In New York, this could be achieved through a radical rezoning, redrawing districts so schools don’t have such different demographics. Or by giving parents more choice about which local school their children will attend. And we could abolish the specialized high schools—like Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech—and distribute those talented kids back into the general population (studies show selective schools have little effect on achievement).

Build teacher dorms.
It’s a lonely life for new teachers working in New York, one reason that nearly one third leave the system by the end of their third year. Among those who remain, few live close to their jobs; just 48 percent of teachers live in the same borough (even when including Staten Island’s 81 percent). Housing subsidies attract talent, but building dorms would do even more to bring instructors near their students and create a sense of community investment, considered crucial in high-need areas.

Give real free lunch.
Three hundred thousand eligible low-income students miss out on a free or discounted lunch—meaning either that their strapped parents have to pay for food or that they go hungry. A universal free-lunch program would solve the problem, at an additional cost to the city of $20 million.

Use schools as service hubs.
In 2002, Cincinnati invested $1 billion to turn 55 schools into true one-stop social-service providers—offering free eye care, violence counseling, after-school basketball. Its graduation rates have increased by 30 percentage points and the gap between black and white students’ graduation rates has narrowed by ten points.

And embrace tech.
Half a million jobs in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math) will be created in New York by 2018. New six-year technical high schools, connected to colleges and industry leaders, are a way to ensure that students in underrepresented communities get an interview. At one such school in Brooklyn, fifteen sophomores had earned seventeen free college credits and are poised for internships and entry jobs with its sponsor company, IBM. —G.D.
This article has been corrected to show that New York spends $22,000 per pupil, not $27,000, which is more than other comparable urban school systems spend, not more than all other school systems.

4. Focus on Schools