Universal pre-kindergarten schooling, every progressive’s fondest dream, is back in the news. Bill de Blasio, the overwhelming favorite in the New York mayoral race and the likely future head of the nation’s largest school system, is pushing universal pre-K as his No. 1 policy proposal. President Obama offered a national version of this idea in his February State of the Union address and has since pushed hard in other settings. Two problems: Such programs would have negligible educational value, and they would be massively expensive.
Mr. de Blasio wants to raise taxes on the city’s rich to collect $530 million annually mostly to fund full-day pre-K. The money would go for 68,000 lower-income New York City children, most of whom already attend publicly funded pre-K either full- (20,000) or part-time (38,000) at a current annual cost of about $190 million. Mr. de Blasio’s proposal means nearly tripling the annual cost for roughly the same group of children.
“Universal” is a misnomer. since Mr. de Blasio’s program would serve only lower-income kids out of a total New York population of about 120,000 four-year-olds. Perhaps, by saying “universal,” Mr. de Blasio intends to rally public support with something seemingly equally available to all. Mr. Obama takes a similar tack, offering the combination of a lofty “universal pre-K” vision with a more limited and targeted program in practice. Yet his program would also cost tens of billions of dollars.