NYC, Pre-K & Public Justice – A Way Forward

Each Wednesday we feature an article from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit

The Washington Post recently covered New York City’s implementation of its Pre-K for All program, offering free full-day preschool to every four-year-old in the city. The program, which began last week, has been designed to accommodate nearly 70,000 enrollees, more than double the prior year’s pre-K enrollment. To meet the anticipated increase in participation, city officials worked with community-based organizations to offer full and half-day pre-K, creating a designation for these community-based organizations as New York City Early Education Centers (NYCEECs). Enrollment statistics show that NYCEECs are serving more than half of the city’s pre-K population.

Public discussions surrounding what has been dubbed in policy circles as “universal pre-K” are part of a much larger conversation about which public policies will best help low-income families to permanently escape poverty. Within the complex and multi-faceted problem of generational poverty, universal pre-K is meant to provide a solution to the “achievement gap.”

The achievement gap describes the ongoing disparity of educational measures between the performance of groups of students. It is most salient when observed relative to socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and gender. One of the factors thought to be responsible for the achievement gap is termed the “time gap” or “word gap”, experienced by some low-income families during their child’s early years. Current brain research has found that children require responsive interactions with parents in order to form foundational brain structures upon which future brain development builds. In our forthcoming book Unleashing Opportunity: Why Escaping Poverty Requires a Shared Vision of Justice (Falls City Press, 2015), I, along with my co-authors Michael Gerson and Katie Thompson, discuss that “as a result of time spent outside the home for work or due to high levels of stress and insecurity, low-income families and single-parent families are more likely to struggle to spend interactive time with their children.”

Universal pre-K is designed to provide young children with interactive time with adults who engage them in conversation and imaginative play to promote strong foundational brain development. Without these interactions, children from low-income families begin life behind their peers, and are likely less able to escape poverty. As children age, it becomes more difficult to change the brain’s foundational structure.   

As it happens in so many areas of public policy, the current dialogue about universal pre-K does not adequately examine the breadth of principles that should undergird good policy making to support human flourishing, of which escaping generational poverty is only one piece. To do this, we need to enlarge our discussion of early childhood to include more than debate about universal pre-K. As Christians, how should we consider and shape public policies pertaining to early childhood? This can then help us to answer the next question of how to think about programs like universal pre-K.


In Unleashing Opportunity, we introduce a framework for Christians to focus attention on developing public policies that promote human flourishing as their goal. We encourage Christians to start by looking at God’s work at creation, then to examine the structures God embedded in the world, considering how they have unfolded over time, and to seek the wisdom God promises to us as we examine and apply it to the policy issues of our day. 

God shows us at creation that human beings are made to bear God’s image. Very practically, this means that every human being has fundamental worth and purpose. God gives humans the task of shaping the creation as image-bearers. For example, the God who is justice calls us to do justice.  

God also reveals the nature of the structures of society that God created --like families, churches, and government. Understanding each structure’s respective responsibilities is key to helping shape our approach to policies focused on early childhood.

As we outline in Unleashing Opportunity, “It is clear from Scripture that God’s creational intent is that every child be raised in a family, within the context of a larger society that supports parents in upholding their familial responsibilities, so that the family and child flourish.” A variety of interrelated principles are at play in this, among them that parents are to be the primary nurturers and educators of their children. A related principle then is that education is far more than instruction. Parents should be able to determine the kinds of care and instruction their child receives as part of the larger responsibility they bear to educate and nurture their child.

“...we need to enlarge our discussion of early childhood to include more than debate about universal pre-K.”

Churches and other faith-based community organizations also bear responsibility to help families fulfill their high calling. In Unleashing Opportunity, we acknowledge from the outset the real barriers experienced by low-income parents, particularly single mothers. We profile specific examples of organizations providing a comprehensive set of tangible services and a community of support for single mothers to help them fulfill their role as parents. These mothers also are able to gain valuable life and academic skills and develop meaningful relationships with their children, as well as with other adults, during their children’s early years.

The guiding principle for government’s work is public justice, which is comprised of two interdependent parts. The principle of public justice recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is not government’s task. This limits the scope of government’s work to promoting policies and practices that uphold the ability of other institutions and associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing. The principle of public justice also recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is government’s task. Government is authorized by God not only to restrain sin and punish evil, but to promote what is good for human flourishing. This promotion of the well-being of an entire society in right relationship with God’s world is what is often referred to as the common good.  


Given that foundation, we can wisely begin to examine existing policy making by exploring how it currently aligns with this framework, and we can recommend changes to be made or new policies to be developed.

Let’s return to New York City’s universal pre-K program as an example of one program focused on helping support families’ ability to fulfill their responsibilities during their children’s early years.  Several items are laudable. Universal pre-K policymaking recognizes that children’s early years matter. By extension, this means that there is recognition that every child, regardless of socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, or gender, has intrinsic value. Also, embedded within the Pre-K for All program structure is the understanding that the nurture of young children is imperative and that education is more than instruction, as evidenced by the stated intention of the program to provide children with high-quality care and responsive developmental interactions with caring adults. And in working with community-based organization designated as NYCEECs, government has expanded the ability of all parents, and not only low-income parents, to have more direction over the pedagogical and philosophical practices of those who provide pre-K for their children. For example, NYCEECs include community-based organizations that are designed around Orthodox Jewish educational pedagogy and religiously organized practices such as single-gender classes and schools. This takes seriously some of the diversity of the religious identities of New Yorkers.

However, in terms of helping parents to fulfill their role and range of responsibilities, or enabling other institutions and associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing, the design of the current program has some room for improvement.

To further support the role of parents in choosing the philosophy of the program in which they enroll their children, Pre-K for All should be structured in such a way that families whose children are currently in religiously organized preschool programs would have that existing enrollment subsidized, rather than requiring the providers to become NYCEECs in order for families to be eligible for the financial benefit.

This benefit should also be reoriented to be directly connected to families of four-year olds rather than to the providers. The current Pre-K for All enrollment process cannot ensure that families will be able to find a Pre-K for All provider, nor can it ensure availability in a nearby program. For low-income parents who rely on public transportation to get their child to a participating provider, the additional costs of program participation are real -- travel time and added transportation costs – which can have the impact of children spending less interactive time with their parents. Modifying the Pre-K for All program so the benefit is extended to families who are already participating in preschool has the potential advantage of keeping children and their families in physical proximity to organizations near their homes or workplaces and in relationship with providers with whom the family has previously established relationships of trust. This can also potentially increase the interactive time between parents and children during their early years.

Finally, within the conversation about providing universal pre-K, there should be recognition that many low-income parents, as well as parents with economic means, want to spend interactive time with their children during their early years, regardless of their decision to enroll them in a pre-K program. Socioeconomic status should not be the barrier to this, nor should a lack of access to knowledge or skills designed to support parents in fulfilling their responsibilities. As we explore in Unleashing Opportunity, there are government-run programs, as well as those offered by nonprofit and faith-based organizations, and powerful examples of partnerships between the two, that help strengthen families during their children’s early years. More work must be done to develop a robust set of policies to help low-income families escape poverty, without having as its cost the immensely valuable time parents have with their children during their early years.

For Further Reflection

Consider the framework outlined in the article as applied to a different government program designed to help low-income parents better fulfill their responsibilities. In Washington, DC, Kids Ride Free promotional materials are reminding riders of the mayor’s recent expansion of DC’s school transit subsidy to cover Metrorail rides. Free Metrobus rides for all DC school-aged children began in 2013. The program expansion to Metrorail applies only to students attending DC Public Schools or public charter schools. This means that students attending independent schools in DC may continue to ride free on Metro bus, but are not eligible for free Metro rail rides. Studies supporting the Kids Ride Free program expansion to cover rail trips showed that students regularly took more than one or two buses to school, requiring longer trips and consequently contributing to less sleep and time for other activities. The DC Mayor called Metrorail “the school bus system for our city’s kids.” The estimated Metrorail subsidy is $600 per year, per student.

- Stephanie Summers is CEO of the Center for Public Justice.