Where Does NYC Stand in Achieving Universal Access to Early Education?

Last week in his state of the union address, President Obama made the case for universal access to high-quality early childhood education. He noted that while we know that early education improves outcomes for children, financial and other barriers prevent many children from accessing these services.

The most recent Census data show that nationwide more than half (52.6 percent) of three- and four-year-olds are not enrolled in a pre-school program.

For New York City, the same Census data show that about half of three- and four-year olds are enrolled in public or private pre-school or nursery school programs. With an additional 8.5% already enrolled in kindergarten, about 40 percent of three- and four-year-olds – more than 87,000 – are not enrolled in an early education program.[1]

While the city compares rather favorably to the nation, there are certain communities and populations in the five boroughs where young children are less likely to be enrolled in early education programs:

  • In the Bronx, 47% of three- and four-year olds are not enrolled in school or pre-school.
  • Young Asian, Latino, and Black children are less likely than White children to be enrolled in school or pre-school: 48% of young Asian children, almost 45% of young Latino, and 42% of young Black children are not enrolled in school compared to 30% of young White children.
  • Young children in poor families are also less likely than other children to be enrolled in school, with 47% of poor children not enrolled compared to 38% of non-poor children.

This last point is particularly troubling, since we know that early childhood education goes a long way toward leveling the playing field for low-income children who often face multiple barriers to success and well-being.

We also know that investments in early childhood education are cost-effective. The President mentioned a return on investment of $7 for every $1 spent on early childhood education. This was likely a reference to a seminal study known as the HighScope Perry Preschool study, in which 123 low-income children were randomly split into two groups – one group receiving a high-quality early education program and the other group receiving no such intervention. The original study was conducted in the mid-1960s and the children have been tracked ever since into adulthood. The results of several follow-up studies show a number of long-term benefits, including higher graduation rates, higher earnings, lower arrest rates, and total returns-on-investment upwards of $17 for every $1 spent on program costs.[2]

With these demonstrated benefits and potential savings, it seems unfathomable that the Mayor proposes to cut early childhood education in his preliminary budget. Rather than reducing resources for these critical programs, we should be looking at ways to expand access to the programs that support early childhood development, so that all New York City children have the opportunity to develop the proper foundation for academic achievement and success.

[1] U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates (2011), Summary Table C14003 and Public Use Microdata Sample File; retrieved from American FactFinder;; (20 February 2012). See also Citizens’ Committee for Children (2013), Keeping Track of New York City’s Children Tenth Edition.

[2] Schweinhart, LJ, et al. (2004); Lifetime Effects: The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40; High Scope Educational Research Foundation; retrieved from; (20 February 2012).


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