The Broken Promise Of Universal Pre-K
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The Broken Promise Of Universal Pre-K

When asked in December what his administration’s major accomplishment was, Mayor de Blasio responded with alacrity: “Everyone knows my one true love is pre-K.”

Indeed, the de Blasio administration has spent the last several years touting universal pre-K as a “transformative” solution for New York City’s families, claiming that the program allows children from all backgrounds to receive a free, high-quality early childhood education. Having spent two years ramping up this program, the administration now appears to have unfurled a “mission accomplished” banner: “We delivered on our promise: nearly 69,000 4-year-olds in quality, safe pre-K programs. No scandal, no craziness,” said Deputy Mayor Richard Buery in December.

But New York City’s faith communities see these assertions for what they are: a failed promise. Since its inception, the UPK program has systematically excluded eligible children who are educated at Jewish, Catholic and Muslim schools.

The administration’s ostensibly “universal” pre-K program imposes rigid, bureaucratic mandates on participating schools, guidelines that serve to disqualify Jewish day schools, yeshivas, and other parochial schools. New York State pre-K programs outside New York City, and other successful pre-K programs across the country, have determined that a five-hour pre-K program is sufficient time to deliver a high-quality early childhood education. But the de Blasio administration disagrees, and has mandated a pre-K school day of six hours and 20 minutes of secular instruction, leaving insufficient time for religious instruction.

This mandate is unique to New York City. Because Jewish parochial schools must close early on Fridays for the Sabbath, Jewish schools cannot meet the required number of secular hours per week. As a result of the mayor’s arbitrary mandate, parents across the city must choose between their religion and their children’s education.

Members of the Orthodox Jewish community, including parents, educators, and advocacy organizations like the Orthodox Union-Teach NYS, have spent two fruitless years asking the city to offer a modified UPK program that accommodates their religious needs. The mayor has heard our voices, but he has yet to truly listen. Thus far, every “solution” the city has offered has been either impractical or insufficient.

For example, Mayor de Blasio announced last February that religious schools could participate in UPK by holding classes on Sundays and federal holidays, to make up for “short” Fridays. This modification is completely infeasible for the majority of religious families and schools. Parents don’t want to send their 4-year-olds to school six days a week, nor can schools force teachers and staff to work on federal holidays. As a result, only 20 percent of the eligible 4-year-olds in New York City’s Orthodox Jewish community currently attend full-day UPK programs. The rest are unable to make the mandated six hours and 20 minutes of secular education work with their religious curriculum.

Just weeks before the start of the 2015-2016 school year, de Blasio announced that the city would offer a total of 4,500 seats in half-day UPK programs, which are two and a half hours long. This minuscule allotment covers a small fraction of 4-year-olds in the city’s faith communities.

Neither of these purported solutions realistically works for our schools and our families. We have, repeatedly, made this point to the de Blasio administration. There is, however, a simple, fair and easily implementable long-term solution to UPK’s inclusion problem. It’s a matter of basic mathematics: If city-funded half-day programs are two and a half hours long, why can’t the City offer a five-hour option — exactly as the rest of New York State does. Such an option would allow faith communities to avail themselves of UPK, making it truly universal. The mayor’s intransigence on this issue is simply baffling.

New York State runs an excellent universal pre-K program with five-hour full school days, allowing parochial schools outside New York City to offer students a comprehensive education. There’s no reason New York City can’t do the same — cutting down the mandated secular school day from six-plus hours to five hours would accommodate our religious schools at absolutely no cost to the City.

It’s time that New York City’s “universal” pre-K program becomes truly universal. Until then, the mayor’s boast of a transformative educational innovation for all of New York’s families rings hollow.

Allen Fagin is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.

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