Katrina vanden Heuvel: Bill de Blasio’s persuasive case for universal pre-K

January 14

Last week, as New York found itself in the icy grip of the polar vortex, another deep freeze seemed to be settling over the Empire State — this time between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio — and crystallizing two competing visions for the future of the Democratic Party.

First came dueling news conferences last Monday. Cuomo stood before the Albany press corps, announcing his plan to cut taxes by $2 billion, while de Blasio was in a Harlem classroom, joined by a bevy of labor leaders who pledged their support for his signature policy initiative: funding universal pre-K for 4-year-olds (and after-school programs for all middle schoolers) by increasing the income taxes of New Yorkers making over $500,000 a year by about a half-percentage point.

This plan, central to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, reflects growing evidence, as I’ve written previously, that high-quality, universal access to pre-K can make a significant difference in the lives of children, especially those from low-income families.

Rumors flew that the governor would preempt de Blasio by announcing his own statewide universal pre-K program that would be paid for — by some mystery of math, given his beloved tax cut — out of the state budget. Cuomo represents a wing of the Democratic party that is squeamish about discussing inequality or supporting a tax increase, even one that amounts to “less than three bucks a day,” as de Blasio helpfully put it in his inaugural address, “about the cost of a small soy latte at your local Starbucks.”

Ultimately, in last Wednesday’s State of the State speech, Cuomo reaffirmed his theoretical support for universal pre-K but made no mention of how it might be funded. This seems to be business as usual for Albany. More than 15 years ago, New York passed a law to put all 4-year-olds in pre-K, but didn’t properly fund the program. The money came in fits and starts, never quite adding up to something that families or districts could count on. Today, the state still fails to provide pre-K to most of its 4-year-olds.

Presumably, this failure is, at least in part, driving de Blasio’s fight for a dedicated stream of pre-K funding — one that won’t be subject to the unpredictability of state budgeting. Indeed, the places that have most successfully and sustainably expanded access to pre-K (notably Oklahoma) have had specially designated and protected revenue streams. And it is in those places, where consistent funding enables high-quality programs, that those programs have the best outcomes.

However this debate plays out, de Blasio’s firm stance on his funding plan has implications far beyond the five boroughs. From red states such as Georgia to blue cities such as San Francisco, there’s growing bipartisan support for a common-sense policy overwhelmingly supported by the evidence. But as Cuomo’s dance illustrates, while there may be agreement on the need for pre-K, there is much less agreement on how to pay for it.

That’s what makes de Blasio’s plan for pre-K so important, both for New Yorkers and as a model for how we can and should invest forward and fund our principles. He is not just paying lip service; he’s actually offering a multi-year funding stream to pay for these programs. That he ran on this issue and won a resounding victory underscores its political viability.

De Blasio is demonstrating a brave new form of economic progressivism. He used his campaign, his transition and now his government as a platform to forcefully argue the progressive case for a small tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers to pay for this important investment in New York City’s future. He also has the support of UPKNYC, a grass-roots campaign featuring everyone from local parents to labor unions to celebrities like Cynthia Nixon. All of this has generated momentum: 63 percent of New Yorkers and 72 percent of New York City residents back his pre-K plan.

If de Blasio persuades the governor and state legislators to support him, this will become the model for how to fund crucial priorities in a progressive, sustainable way — and a lesson for Democrats around the country who want to meaningfully address the growing concern about inequality.

In fact, Cuomo aside, other Democrats are taking notice. As her husband swore de Blasio into office, Hillary Clinton sat nearby, perhaps seizing the moment to capture the progressive energy coursing through the Democratic Party. Her 2016 plans remain, as ever, unclear. But if she does indeed make a run for president, she would be wise to include tax-funded universal pre-K on her national campaign platform. It’s just the kind of smart, humane and bold progressive investment our country needs to bring more Americans in from the cold.

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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