A couple of years ago, my wife and I were touring a local preschool when my wife hesitantly inquired about financial aid. “We consider attending preschool to be a privilege, and so there is no aid,” we were told. We never returned to that school again. Instead, we found a preschool that was willing to take account of our middle-class income and offered us a discounted tuition. And that was that.
But pre-K is different. It is no longer just a privilege for some. And rightly so. A significant body of research shows that young children who participate in high-quality pre-K programs enter school more ready to learn. These children also show significant academic gains. Fortunately, thanks in great part to our city’s newest mayor, New York State’s government was convinced of the importance of pre-K for all children and recently funded a universal pre-K program, thus making a free pre-K program available to all.
Earlier this year, my family moved near a public school with an established pre-K program in the hopes that this would give my 4-year-old daughter a good chance to win the admissions lottery for the school. When it came time for applications, we applied to that program and four others in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where we live.
Along with more than 15,000 other families in New York City, we learned at the end of last week that my daughter was placed on a wait list at all of the programs to which we had applied. Not surprisingly, demand for these seats exceeded supply as the city had very little time to implement the newly funded program. The city is apparently working on adding additional seats for future years, although that offers little help in this year.
However, I wish I had known before I started this process that the Upper East Side and Yorkville have fewer than five pre-K seats for every 100 4-year-olds, which is practically the opposite of universal. It was certainly a surprise to learn just how poor our chances were. It was also concerning that no new programs were added in the area once funding for universal pre-K was obtained by the city.
In the letter we received from the Department of Education we were advised to turn to the pre-K programs being run by community based organizations, which the city hopes will give families turned away from established public school programs the opportunity to partake in a free pre-K program. In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio told parents like me, “It’s not the end of the road,” adding, “There are hundreds of incredible community-based programs ready to provide a great pre-K experience, and we want every parent to take advantage of all the new choices out there.”
Sounds great. But there is a problem. Nearly all of the pre-K programs in the community based organizations in my area are for poor and disadvantaged children. This means that because my family’s income is solidly middle class we are priced out of these programs. Other of these programs are full, only partially funded by the state, or have managed to play with the state-funded hours so as to require families to pay thousands of dollars for a portion of the day. Unless my daughter is miraculously pulled off a waiting list for a public school program, our only option is private school.
In discussing middle class renters with children in Manhattan recently, the New York Times described this group, of which I am a member, as the “forgotten middle,” and noted that these households “perch on the knife edge between hope and anxiety.” This is quite accurate. Like the families described in the Times’ article, my family is comfortable and certainly does not know the anxiety faced by low-income families. However, we too feel very vulnerable, and, as the article details, we face an acute situation in Manhattan where we are locked out of both luxury housing and public housing, and rent-stabilized units are both vanishing and rarely available.
This middle class anxiety extends beyond housing. Most pressing are the issues of childcare and schooling. As with apartments, we in the middle are priced out of both high and low end schooling options, and, at least for one more year, our chances of getting our children into pre-K, in certain areas of the city, are better than winning the Powerball jackpot, but still poor.
Unless we want the island of Manhattan to be a habitat for only the ultra wealthy and those in poverty, the Mayor and other local officials have a lot of work to do, on both the housing and education fronts. Our lives, and those of our children, should not depend on the luck of the draw. And, while I’m at it, Mr. Mayor, can we discuss universal childcare next?