What No One Will Say About Pre-K

New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, delivers his remarks at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center in the Crown Hei
New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, delivers his remarks at the Friends of Crown Heights Educational Center in the Crown Heights section of the Brooklyn borough of New York, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2013. De Blasio on Thursday announced a website and ad campaign meant to push lawmakers to pass his universal pre-kindergarten plan. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's proposal to create universal pre-K in New York City began as a noble quest. Though rich and poor children do not differ in their innate intelligence, a substantial achievement gap is observable by 4 years old and continues to grow wider for, well, life. The weight of the evidence is that universal pre-K works, and that its benefits extend beyond the pre-K year. Furthermore, Mayor de Blasio advanced a reasonable way to pay for it: a half-percent increase in taxes on New York City residents who earn over $500,000. For a brief Camelot moment it appeared that New York would employ progressive taxation to expand the social net.

Everything changed when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that he'd back pre-K but not the supporting tax. This put de Blasio in a political bind: If he rejected Cuomo's olive branch, it would appear that raising the tax on the wealthy was the main point of his proposal. So he abandoned the tax. In that moment, the debate over pre-K became politics as usual: a discussion not of how to expand the pie but of how to divide it up. De Blasio brought home the bacon: The final budget deal includes $300 million for pre-K in the city. The funds come from a budget surplus, consisting largely of casino revenue. It's all great unless you happen to live outside the city. The budget reserves a mere $40 million for pre-K in the rest of the state, a drop in a very large bucket.

Whether New York City is more deserving of pre-K than the rest of the state is a quite different question from whether pre-K is better than no pre-K. It's easy enough to make a case for special treatment of the Bronx, which is the poorest county in New York, with a per capita income of $17,575. But Manhattan is the wealthiest, with a per capita income of nearly $60,000. How can one justify pre-K in Manhattan but not Buffalo, which has a poverty rate over 30 percent and ranks as America's third poorest city?

For that matter, is universal pre-K the best use of scarce resources? A meta-analysis by the Brookings Institute finds mixed evidence of the efficacy of pre-K. There's no ambiguity, however, regarding the usefulness of Head Start or the Infant Health and Development Program, which involved an intensive intervention in the lives of low-birth-weight children. Pre-K is good, but the data suggest that the most effective programs include educational, health, nutritional, and social components.

Or might casino money have been better used to eliminate the so-called Gap Elimination Adjustment (GEA), an across-the-board reduction in state aid that began as a way of addressing the state's dire budget crisis in 2009-10? The budget deficit is gone, but the GEA remains. To make matters worse, local districts are handcuffed from redressing the shortfall by Gov. Cuomo's signature program: a counter-democratic requirement that any district that tries to raise its property taxes by more than the rate of inflation needs to win a 60-percent supermajority. The governor's new budget creates further penalties for districts that fail to stay under the 2-percent threshold.

The only relevant conversation, of course, is what's right for schoolchildren, and what we can afford. That's where this started, but sadly isn't where it ended.