Universal Pre-K: 50,000 Happier Moms?


Bev’s Kiddie Day Care, in Richmond Hill, Queens, one of the 1,100 community centers licensed to be part of the Universal Pre-K program in New York. (André Tassinari/NY City Lens)

On Sept. 4, 2014, more than 50,000 four-year-old children started prekindergarten classes in New York City, beginning the universal program that is one of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s most ambitious initiatives. This is more than double the number of students who were enrolled last year.

The long-term benefits for the children have been thoroughly discussed. But what about the 50,000 mothers?  Can universal Pre-K change their lives?

The most obvious benefit is financial — and it is not a small one. “For most American families with child under six, child care is the second highest monthly cost, just after rent. And for some families, it’s the highest,” said Dr. Jennifer Glass, a research associate in the Population Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. She added that the impact is even greater in the 40% of the families that have mothers as sole breadwinners. Glass also emphasized that there are studies showing that access to child care can improve both general and mental health of mothers.

“Some benefits are not measured in dollars,” said Dr. Marybeth Mattingly, director of research on vulnerable families in The Carsey School of Public Policy. “It could just give moms a break they need.” She said the effects on the labor force are not clear. Many moms already had jobs even without free Pre-K, and paid for private child care. But the high-quality public prekindergarten would certainly alleviate the stress of families where moms were already working.

New York City’s effort towards widespread access to preschool is not isolated: Some states like Georgia and Oklahoma started it years ago, and President Obama, in his 2013 State of the Union Address, proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” But Bill de Blasio’s program is poised to be a benchmark. It will run at 600 public schools and 1,100 community-based early childhood centers.

One of these centers is Bev’s Kiddie Day Care, located on a quiet street in Richmond Hill, Queens. Beverly Cox, who has 17 years of experience with child care, manages the center. She said they have 12 students in the full-day Pre-K (from 8:30 a.m. to 2:50 p.m.). Most families that have children there are immigrants from South Asia.

Camille Laliah, a mother of two boys and pregnant with a third child, is one of them. Her oldest son started attending Bev’s two weeks ago. She said the full-day class “is a lot for him, but for me is good.” If he hadn’t got a spot, she said she would have looked for a private program.

Joyta Singh, wearing a white security-guard uniform, went to Bev’s to pick up her niece, who had turned four the day before. She said her sister usually works late, and as she works flexible hours, she can help. If her sister wants, though, Bev’s offers after-school care as an optional service.

Options like after-school care are a great advantage of the mixed delivery method, explained Hannah Matthews, director of childcare and early education at CLASP, the Center for Law and Social Policy, in Washington. Mixed delivery means that the universal Pre-K program is operated both by public schools and community centers. The community centers are usually flexible in offering additional — paid — care hours for mothers who work longer. “Full-day is a worthy goal we should advocate for,” said Matthews. (On Sept. 12 the mayor announced a major after-school support initiative, but aimed initially at middle-schoolers.)

According to the 2012 report, “Parents and the High Cost of Child Care,” by Child Care Aware of America, New York was the least-affordable state for full-time care for a 4-year-old in a center in 2011. The average annual cost of care for a 4-year-old child was $11,585. This represented 45% of the median income for a single mother family or 13% of the income for a two-parent family — and was just below the median annual rent of $11,952.

So New York may be the right place to start a universal Pre-K agenda. The program is set to be operating full scale in 2015, with an estimated 70,000 four-year-olds enrolled. But we can also expect to have a few new much older students starting classes, too. Steve Singh, father of a girl at Bev’s Pre-K, said about the effect the initiative had in the life of his wife: “She can go back to school now.”