A kindergarten class at Oyster-Adams Bilingual School in Washington DC. Photo used under Creative Commons license. Originally posted by the US Department of Education on Flickr.
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One of the biggest early education stories in the past month has been the introduction of high-profile federal legislation, based on President Obama’s Preschool for All plan. Federal movement on high-quality early education could be a policy game-changer, but another growing trend deserves attention: large cities moving on pre-K provision independently of state-funded efforts.

Local provision of early education played out as an electoral issue in one of the world’s largest media markets: New York City. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio had championed the importance of early education in his role as Public Advocate. He also campaigned heavily on his plan to provide additional pre-K seats, as well as after-school programs, by increasing the tax rate on residents earning more than $500,000. His opponent, Joe Lhota, also supported the idea of expanding pre-K access, suggesting, though, that the city could fund it by using current funds more efficiently. Notably, the debate in New York City was not over whether pre-K should be provided, but rather how it should be funded.

Data from New America’s Federal Education Budget Project indicate that 58,173 children in New York City are enrolled in district-based, state-funded pre-K, accounting for just over half of the students enrolled in publicly funded pre-K statewide. Despite this, deBlasio estimates that there are still about 50,000 children in the city who lack access to publicly funded pre-K or who are enrolled in inadequate part-day, pre-K. Pre-K was a major component of deBlasio’s “Tale of Two Cities” campaign that won him his office, though whether he can rally the support he needs in the state capital is yet to be seen; Governor Andrew Cuomo has voiced his support for universal pre-K as well as his reluctance for a tax increase.

Local pre-K efforts aren’t new; The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) spotlighted a handful of early adopters in 2006. And, the National League of Cities released a series of case studies in 2012 exploring early education alignment efforts in several large cities. In 2013, however, we have seen a buffet of new programs, new proposals, and new research to support these efforts.

  • In 2013, Seattle’s city council passed a resolution to develop “Preschool for All” to make quality early education available to all 3- and 4-year-olds in the city. Though still in its developmental stages, the city council has laid out clear expectations for program quality and released a Request for Proposal for a consultant to spearhead the development efforts.
  • In 2012, San Antonio approved a ⅛ cent sales tax increase to provide roughly $31 million for public pre-K. Pre-K For San Antonio began serving children this school year, and will served about, 3,700 4-year-olds annually when fully implemented.
  • New results from the locally-funded Denver Preschool Program indicate that children who participated in the program benefitted. Denver voters approved a 12 cent sales tax on $100 purchases in 2006 to fund tuition supports for approved preschool programs, which now reach 70 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds.
  • Tulsa, Oklahoma is engaged in a public-private partnership with national provider Educare to reduce the education gap, and was highlighted in a recent Politico op-ed from two former directors of the White House Domestic Policy Council exploring the trend that “If Congress won’t lead, states and cities will.”
  • Earlier this year, an evaluation of San Francisco’s Preschool for All program indicated positive outcomes for students in receptive language, early literacy and mathematics, and self-regulation. The city has provided publicly-funded preschool for 4-year-olds since 2005.

Education has a history of local control. At NIEER’s blog, Preschool Matters, my colleague Jim Squires explored a number of local control scenarios in depth using data from the 2012 State Preschool Yearbook. He concluded that across eleven measures of local control (such as hours of program operation and minimum age for eligibility), all 54 pre-K programs, in 40 states and D.C., reported at least one instance of local decision-making authority.

So what’s the common theme in these local efforts? Each of the cities listed above is among the 50 most populous in the U.S. and there is a clear focus in each city on leveraging public and private resources to finance publicly funded pre-K. Denver and San Antonio utilize a voter-approved dedicated funding stream through a new tax, which not only protects the funding from the city or state budget process, but also makes clear that local residents support prioritizing early education spending. These local efforts are also taking place in states that already provide state-funded pre-K, as in Oklahoma. In these instances, the local funding streams are designed to make up for shortfalls in state funding rather than to build a new program from scratch.

While it is too early to know whether universal pre-K will come to fruition in New York City, it is clear that the election of a pre-K advocate as mayor of such a large city will affect the conversation across the country.