The daunting logistics of the pre-K plan
Getting Bill de Blasio’s ambitious, politically tricky universal pre-kindergarten plan through Albany may turn out to be the easy part.
Because if and when it passes, the city will have to contend urgently with some questions it doesn't currently have the answers to, beginning with where all the newly eligible children will go, and how they'll get there.
De Blasio has said the city will have the space to house 53,604 pre-K students by this September and all 73,250 eligible children by the following school year if the city identifies 2,000 more classrooms.
“Make no mistake, we are ready to hit the ground running and launch a major expansion of quality pre-K for the coming school year,” de Blasio said in a statement. “The real obstacle isn’t space or personnel, it’s the sustainable funding needed to serve every child.”
But if the funding is secured, the space issue will pose a logistical challenge of historic proportions. The mayor's figures rely on a number of optimistic assumptions, beginning with the idea that the city will be able to identify and convert adequate space not just in school buildings, but in community-based organizations (CBOs) and libraries, all in time to accommodate the first phase of expanded pre-K in September. There are hundreds of city regulations to make classroom space useable for young children.
Another potential headache: School busing is not provided for most four-year-olds.
“I’m worried about it,” said Pedro Noguera, a professor of education at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, about executing de Blasio's pre-K plan. “I just think if you try to do this too quickly you’re not going to do it well.”
"This could easily blow up in the mayor and chancellor’s face,” he added.
De Blasio and his allies are currently engaged in a political battle with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has no intention of allowing a tax hike in his re-election year, and has effectively tried to preempt the de Blasio plan by proposing some statewide funding for pre-K that wouldn't require additional taxes.
That's left de Blasio to convince lawmakers and the public that Cuomo's proposal is insufficient to the needs of the city's children, even as he reassures them that his own plan is a workable one.
De Blasio offered some new details about his potentially transformative (and highly popular) plan in a report released on Jan. 27, which found the Department of Education has already identified about 4,000 classrooms that could house pre-K programs, with more space available in community-based organizations and public libraries.
The D.O.E. currently provides pre-K for about 59,000 children, according to the department's figures, with about 60 percent of the programs housed in C.B.O.s, and the remaining 40 percent in D.O.E. schools.
But many city schools are already overcrowded, meaning, presumably, there would be no room for new pre-K classes. (In Brooklyn’s District 15, for example, where de Blasio’s children attended school, 24 out of 36 schools are already over-utilized, according to a D.O.E report from the 2012-2013 school year.)
So accomodating the newly eligible children, at the very least, will require more resources and capability than the education department can muster on its own.
“There’s hardly any community you go in that doesn’t have a big need for pre-K,” said Nancy Wackstein, the executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, a coalition of 38 community organizations, many of which currently provide pre-K and are willing to increase their capacity under the mayor’s plan. "What it will require is all the city agencies pulling together to make it happen, and to expand in many cases. We in the nonprofit sector are sometimes the victim of slow city processes.”
There is plenty of precedent for housing pre-K programs outside traditional schools: 500 C.B.O.s currently offer pre-K through D.O.E. contracts. But expanding them under strict city regulations won’t be easy.
According to Department of Health regulations, C.B.O.s housing pre-K space must have, among other things, child-sized sinks with water temperature not exceeding 115 degrees Fahrenheit, 30 square feet of wall-to-wall space for each child, protective barriers installed in all stairways, and low banisters or handrails installed for small children, among many other regulations for construction.
C.B.O.s will also have to ensure that all rooms housing pre-K programs have the appropriate radiator covers and correct liquid soap dispensers for children, along with hundreds of other regulations for building and renovating pre-K space.
D.O.E. officials have asked principals and school leaders to tell them whether their schools have space for pre-K and if they are willing to host the program. Schools are also subject to regulations for pre-K: classrooms cannot be above the third floor, must provide at least 35 square feet of space per child, and have child-size bathrooms easily accessible from the classrooms.
If there are schools with pre-K space available, commutes may prove difficult due to a state law preventing children under four from riding a bus without a car seat. While special-education students will continue to receive busing from the D.O.E., busing for general education students is not yet on the table. De Blasio has also proposed looking into additional space in public library branches and New York City Housing Authority buildings.
Wackstein said that while some NYCHA buildings’ community spaces are underutilized, some would require costly renovations in order to bring the rooms up to code for housing young children. As for the libraries, there could be space crunch: Pre-K children could end up using branches where schools chancellor Carmen Fariña already has designs to create "teen rooms" for her new middle school improvement initiative.
Officials from the city's cash-strapped library system say they're up to the task of housing pre-K activity.
“We’ve been in the business of pre-K and children’s literacy work for decades,” said Anthony Marx, president and CEO of the New York Public Library.
The NYPL has 88 branches and most of them have floors or rooms for children, Marx added.
The Queens Public Library has submitted proposals to provide pre-K at several of its sites, a spokeswoman said.
Still, the details of whether pre-K programs would actually move into the libraries in large numbers or whether those programs would just use the libraries’ resources have not yet been hammered out, sources say.
Specifics for space utilization in school buildings are still to be determined, D.O.E. spokesman Devon Puglia said.
“In terms of our classroom estimates, they are initial,” said Puglia.
He said the city would find accommodations, without compromising on standards.
“We want kids in suitable spaces with high-quality programs, whether C.B.O. or public school, and they will be,” he said.