One morning in August 1987, three months after my fourth birthday, my mom drove me a couple miles from our home in a cushy Los Angeles suburb and dropped me off for my first day of formal schooling at the local Montessori pre-kindergarten program.
Montessori's educational philosophy famously focuses on cultivating student autonomy and self-expression. My experience was typical. I made my first friends. I learned the proper proportions of a capitalized "B." I became a master craftsman of macaroni necklaces.
This time was probably nothing more than fancy daycare. Exceptionally intensive, well-run pre-k programs might possibly impart lasting cognitive benefits. But the evidence is sketchy at best.
These facts are no foe to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. Establishing a government-run "universal" pre-k program was a centerpiece of his campaign for the job. And now, he's about to make good on that promise. The mayor just secured $300 million for the project in the New York state budget. The new pre-k program will click into place over the next two years. It will eventually enroll about 73,250 children at a cost of $10,200 per head. A small slice of the schools are expected to be run in concert with community charities and private providers, but the vast majority will be directly managed by the city's Department of Education.
And here's where the romantic visions driving de Blasio's grand project collide with the intractable reality of what public pre-k in New York City will actually look like in practice. These schools will bear little resemblance to my Montessori experience. They will not be sanctuaries for supple young minds. They will not be exceptionally intensive and well-run. They will be mostly terrible.
We know this because the NYC Department of Education has been running a couple thousand K-12 institutions for decades. It spends about $19,000 per student per year. And its schools are…mostly terrible.
For a full quarter of NYC public schools, at least 90 percent of the student body is below grade level in math and reading. And with the tiny exceptions of some high performing charters and elite magnet schools such as Stuyvesant, the rest perform substantially below overall state averages.
Just 28 percent of the city's public fourth graders score "proficient" or better on the federally-run National Assessment of Educational Progress. Poor, black and Latino students tend to do even worse.
So this is the warped logic undergirding this new pre-k program: Government schools have sucked up huge public resources while failing over and over again to meet their basic obligation to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to secure a brighter future. Mayor de Blasio looks out at this vast blighted terrain of waste and broken promises and thinks to himself: "Time to expand."
And even if the city's education bureaucrats could somehow break from the past and establish high quality preschools, any cognitive gains imparted on participating kids will evaporate once they've been offloaded into one of those terrible public grade schools. The long-term return on that $300 million investment will approximate zero.
This is exactly the story of Head Start, which, like universal pre-k, occupies a sacred space in the public imagination. The benefits of Head Start were extensively investigated in two separate studies run by the federal government. The aim for each was justifying the program's $100 billion price tag. They accomplished the opposite. Both found no aptitude difference between grade schoolers that had attended Head Start and those that had not.
Mayor de Blasio's delusional pre-k initiative is the natural extension of his deeply broken philosophy about education generally.
Effectively schooling the million-plus students in the NYC system—with their vastly different family backgrounds, learning styles, and personalities—is a challenging problem. Probably the worst possible way to try to tackle it is to have distant technocrats create a single inflexible pedagogical program and apply it uniformly throughout the city.
Here's a superior approach: Provide teachers and administrators the freedom to adapt educational protocols to the needs of their specific pupils. And empower parents to shop around—competition for students creates the incentives for schools to improve.
There's no better testament to the power of an open, innovation-friendly educational platform than NYC's own Success Academy, almost certainly the best charter franchise in the city.
Run by former city council member and likely future mayoral prospect Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy draws its students mostly from low-income minority communities. Because it has been freed from union rules and staid educational paradigms, it can adapt to best meet students' needs by, among other things, lengthening school days and shortening summers.
The results have been phenomenal. Success Academy students post a 94 percent pass rate in national math aptitude assessments and 64 percent in English—both scores dramatically exceed citywide averages. After Moskowitz recently announced she would be opening up 10 new locations, over 14,400 families applied for fewer than 3,000 seats.
Surely, as a true champion of Gotham's struggling poor, Mayor de Blasio has welcomed Moskowitz's success, right? Maybe he's empowered other education entrepreneurs to similarly experiment? Or at least dispatched his policy team to soak up some of Success Academy's best practices?
Not exactly. The mayor's sole interaction with Moskowitz so far is a petty turf war.
Within the first few months of his term, de Blasio moved to expel several Success programs from the public buildings they were housed in. He told a teachers union conference that Moskowitz needs to "stop being tolerated, enabled, supported." The mayor backed down only after some Silicon Valley heavy-hitters bankrolled a concerted counter-campaign.
Moskowitz is a threat to "traditional" public schools, which de Blasio holds sacred. And its that ideal—of a uniform, government-run education system for all the city's children—that animates this new pre-k program.
But it's precisely that system that has so thoroughly failed generation after generation of young New Yorkers. It's certainly not worth saving, let alone expanding.