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Like most big-city mayors, New York City’s Bill de Blasio faces the daunting task of reopening schools safely and soon. How about resuming with fairness as well, realigning pre-K to ease racial disparities in early learning?

Bolder action is required to support children hit hardest by the pandemic, not to mention to address deep-seated inequities woven into the fabric of educational institutions. Reopening preschools with fairness would get parents back to work and deliver on the mayor’s aim of narrowing gaps in children’s learning.

New York City’s expansive pre-K network ­— universal and free ­— is not immune to organized inequality. It tilts toward better-off families, leaving poor children behind in lower-quality classrooms.

In de Blasio’s admirable, yet headlong rush to create tens of thousands of new seats, he is failing to ensure that all families gain access to robust programs.

New findings out this week detail how 60 percent of the city’s 1,750 pre-Ks display tepid to “medium” quality, according to the New York City Department of Education’s own monitors. Teachers fail to arrange evocative learning tasks and motivating circle times, or duck the chance to nurture rich language with their young charges. Average pre-K quality overall, after climbing initially, has remained at a plateau in the past two years.

Quality declines further in pre-Ks that serve more children of color ­— places like the Bronx and parts of Brooklyn ­— relative to those hosting white families. When a pre-K serves mainly Black families, just one in four children attends a pre-K rated as “good” or “excellent.” Yet, in programs that enroll mostly white or Asian American children, the odds of attending a high-quality pre-K reach two in five.

The findings show that preschools nestled into economically comfortable areas of Park Slope in Brooklyn, or the Upper East Side of Manhattan, average 12 percentage points higher on facets of classroom quality, such as warm social relations or a good balance between guided play and structured learning tasks, compared with pre-Ks in the Bronx or those wedged into public housing on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The mayor’s preschool initiative is beginning to resemble city schools: unfairly financed, and too often segregated.

It’s difficult to see how this mayor’s tale-of-two-cities ends well until robust pre-K is distributed fairly across neighborhoods. At stake ­is whether ambitious entitlements truly narrow gaps in children’s learning — or merely express soulful aspirations.

De Blasio has accomplished much in six and a half years, delivering free pre-K to 70 percent of 4-year-olds, while easing the stretched budgets of young families. He has raised the status and pay of pre-K teachers, “who don’t just wipe faces and clean lunch tables,” as Aimee Rychlowski puts it, director of the Maspeth Town Hall Pre-K in Queens. “Finally, our teachers are being recognized for the depth and complexity of what they do.”

Many preschools do score high on periodic quality checks, most situated in community nonprofits, some founded a century ago in settlement houses. What’s key is hiring teachers “who ­— beyond being highly qualified ­— are patient, cuddly and can think on their feet,” Rychlowski said. “They must be able to get down to the child’s level and explain things.”

Most parents, even across Harlem and the Bronx, live close to at least one high-quality preschool. Neither geography nor demographics rule out access to potent pre-K. But the odds of finding a seat within these enriched programs decline in many communities of color.

A 10-minute walk from the Maspeth Town Hall Pre-K, a second pre-K scores two-thirds lower on the city’s barometer of quality. Pallid social relations are observed inside between teachers and children, along with few cognitively motivating tasks for kids. Even basic hygiene — like hand-washing and toileting routines — falls short, city officials report.

The mash-up between an invisible virus and palpable civic anguish underscores the racialized order that fractures key institutions in America, especially schools. Unless mayors and educators reopen pre-K with equity, they will perpetuate that great divide, separating well-educated and privileged families from the working poor.

Why not instead pursue a fair system of early education, moving to erase the lines of race and class that shape children’s disparate futures from the start?

This story about New York City pre-K quality and racial integration was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at U.C. Berkeley, directs research on early education in New York.

Talia Leibovitz is a doctoral candidate in school psychology at U.C. Berkeley.

Kaitlyn Du is a student at U.C. Berkeley studying data science, applied math and operations research.


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