How the Middle Class Gets Priced Out of Preschool

What Women Really Think
Aug. 6 2013 11:43 AM

How the Middle Class Gets Priced Out of Preschool

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It's not snobby to want this for your kids

Photo by Luke Fontana/Screen Actors Guild Foundation via Getty Images

The New York Observer headline, “Should Upper Middle Class Tots Get Subsidized Student Loans for Pre-School?” is written to inspire a hearty “Jesus, no,” from the majority of readers. The article is about NYC mayoral candidate Christine Quinn’s new plan to offer subsidized preschool loans to parents making $80,000-$200,000 a year. Jezebel responded with the proper amount of outrage—but about the wrong thing. The problem isn’t that ridiculous upper-middle class parents think they need subsidized loans to allow their kids to go to private pre-school “because otherwise your kid will never go to Harvard and their life is RUINED,” as Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan puts it. The problem is that there are not nearly enough public pre-K spots to go around for anyone, regardless of income. So then parents have no choice but to send their kids to private preschool instead of their local pre-K-offering public school, or to keep their kids out of school altogether.

According to the Daily News, in some NYC neighborhoods, pre-K is tougher to get into than Harvard. Indeed, some of these preschools are in expensive Manhattan nabes—in one district in Battery Park City, the admission rate is 7 percent.  But it’s not just “upper middle class” neighborhoods that are affected. Staunchly middle and lower middle class areas—Sunset Park and Bay Ridge in Brooklyn and parts of Queens—have seven applicants per pre-K seat.

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New York added 4,000 pre-K slots this year, but it’s not nearly enough. There was a New York Times article a few years ago about middle-class parents creating underground, sometimes illegal, co-op preschools because they had no other choice for educating their kids. According to Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) who is quoted in the Times, access to preschool across the country—not just in New York—is actually lower for the middle class than for the poor. Middle-income families don’t have access to Head Start, like poor families, and they can’t afford the most expensive places, either. Only 26 percent of 4-year-olds nationwide have access to pre-K, according to the advocacy group Pre-K Now.

And this is a problem, not because middle-class parents are all snotty, bourgeoisie monsters, desperate for their kids to get into Harvard, but because “the lack of affordable pre-K means that even middle-class children lag behind their more affluent counterparts when they get to kindergarten,” the writer of the Times story, Soni Sangha points out.  She quotes statistics from Pre-K Now: “More than one quarter of upper-middle-income children entering kindergarten do not know the alphabet, and almost 20 percent of middle-income children do not understand numerical sequence.”

But it’s not just a problem for kids who need to learn the basics. It’s a problem for parents. Sangha describes meeting the other women from the families that created the co-op, and how each family took turns hosting the group of kids, and tedious, 53-email chains that “laid bare personal, cultural and socioeconomic biases and that pitted us against one another.” Not many full-time working parents have time for this kind of arrangement, but they’re also out of options when even the cheapest full-time pre-K costs over $10,000.

As the Observer points out, the solution isn’t to subsidize loans for private pre-school, as Quinn proposes. It’s to find some money for public preschool. When the deeply red Oklahoma has found money to fund universal pre-K, New York can come up with a better plan than subsidized loans.

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

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