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Want diversity? Look at pre-K: If we want to begin mixing kids in classrooms, it should start in the early years


New York City is deep in an ongoing discussion about how to integrate its infamously segregated public schools. Most recently, an advisory group formed by Mayor de Blasio recommended that the city abolish its gifted and talented programs.

Strangely absent from these conversations has been a frank discussion regarding the role of early education in K-12 school segregation. This omission is woefully short-sighted. The sprawling patchwork of early-education programs that comprise children’s first learning environments is the feeder system for public schools, after all, and this feeder system is even more segregated than K-12 schools themselves.

When parents start kids out in a segregated setting, it can be hard to correct course down the road.

It’s no accident that early education programs in New York City are rigidly divided along class lines. In the United States, for children too young for kindergarten, public investment in education has historically been reserved for the poor. Everyone else has been forced to pay for child care privately, with parents’ options circumscribed by what they can and cannot afford. This gave rise to today’s approach to child care, in which segregation is baked into the design.

The recent, rapid growth of New York City preschool programs that are open and free to all 4- and 3-year-olds holds the potential to change this, and to create economically integrated preschools in neighborhoods where rich and poor live side by side. There’s reason to hope it will be easier to get striving white or Asian parents on board with integrated preschools than, say, with changes to the admissions process for Stuyvesant, Bronx Science and Brooklyn Tech.

But so far that’s not on the table. Because the city’s pre-K and 3-K programs are built on the city’s highly segregated child care system — with about 60% of the city’s universal pre-K slots in community-based child care centers rather than schools — the segregation typical to child care runs rampant even in the city’s publicly funded preschool programs. Not surprisingly, in 2016 The Century Foundation found the city’s Pre-K-for-All classes to be even more segregated than its kindergarten classrooms.

Still, there are accidental pockets of diversity to be found in the city’s subsidized child care system that have important lessons to offer. I’ve identified a half-dozen centers with at least some economic diversity. These centers had all provided subsidized child care almost exclusively to low-income families before they began adding wealthier, tuition-paying parents to their mix as their surrounding neighborhoods gentrified.

Often it was these centers’ relative affordability that first lured in the tuition-paying parents. Still, many of these families came to highly value the centers’ diversity. Parents I spoke with said that exposing kids to different backgrounds seemed especially important during the early years, when a child first becomes aware of race and class.

Staff at the centers also saw benefits. One director talked about the connections formed among parents. A board member talked about the resources the wealthier families brought with them, whether it was time to volunteer on field trips or help bringing in added programming. These observations align with the academic research regarding middle-class parents at integrating public schools.

But some directors of subsidized centers also expressed ambivalence about giving precious child-care slots to middle-class families. Parents who have the means to pay tuition already have more options, the head of one of the city’s largest subsidized providers explained.

Public preschool programs hold the potential to eliminate this particular tension. They also offer the possibility to introduce kids and their parents of all backgrounds to diverse learning environments during their formative first few years together, before the achievement gap develops, and before parents consider segregated learning environments the norm.

None of this is to suggest that creating diverse public preschools does not come without its own challenges; directors of diversifying centers need to think carefully about how to create spaces where all families can contribute and feel valued. But before that can happen, early education must be a bigger part of the school segregation conversation.

Hurley is senior fellow at the Center for New York City Affairs.