Editor’s Note: Bill de Blasio is one of 10 presidential candidates taking part in a Democratic debate Wednesday, July 31, at 8 p.m. ET on CNN. Ten others will debate on Tuesday evening. He is the mayor of New York City. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
This May, I celebrated my 25th wedding anniversary with the love of my life, Chirlane.
We met decades ago when we both worked for former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, and it was love at first sight for me—though I’ll admit that she felt absolutely nothing at first. Luckily, that eventually changed, and once we both fell in love, we had a really important decision to make: where to live.
Back in the 1990s, New York City was a great deal more divided than it is now. We knew our multi-racial family would bring stares and insults in some places. So, we invested in our own oasis in Brooklyn, where we could feel at home and be comfortable raising our children.
Like most other parents, we wanted our kids to grow up in an atmosphere of respect and acceptance. We also wanted them to realize their potential from an early age. The best way for them to do that and have the same opportunities as kids from wealthier families who could afford early education classes was to enroll in a quality public pre-K program. At the time, admission to these programs was decided through a lottery, and only a few families got it, so we prayed and prayed– and we lucked out. Access to quality pre-K made a huge difference for our kids, and ultimately changed the lives of our family.
We were thrilled with that outcome, but we knew that it was entirely due to chance. We also understood that with so much at stake, no parent should have to worry that their child’s education would be decided that way. It wasn’t right that those born to the wealthiest New Yorkers were all but guaranteed great early childhood education, while everyone else in the city was at the mercy of a lottery.
While we’ve come a long way in this country, the success of young people is still too often based on the zip code they grew up in or the wealth of their family, rather than their intelligence, drive or empathy.
So when I became mayor, my first goal was to provide free pre-K for every child in New York City – and I did it. Now we’re working to ensure that every 3-year-old will have access to early childhood education as well, once our 3-K for All initiative finishes its rollout.
The results for our city have been extraordinary. Over the last six years, we’ve seen enrollment increase from 19,000 children to 70,000 as of January 2019. Scaling up pre-K hasn’t hurt its quality, either; about 94% of the programs met or exceeded a threshold that predicts positive student development outcomes in 2018 – up from just 77% in 2015.
Pre-K for All is also passing the test among some of its most important judges: the parents of the kids who are enrolled. A survey found that 92% of families rated their kid’s program “excellent” or “good,” and over 80% think their kids are learning “a lot.” That’s not the only reason they like it: families with children enrolled in free, full-day pre-K save an average of $10,000 every year on childcare costs.
We didn’t just implement universal pre-K to improve educational outcomes and put money back in the pockets of working families. It’s about more than that. It’s addressing longstanding racial inequities and creating a more fair and just society.
Let’s be blunt: we’re dealing with legacies in education that go back to the historical contradictions of our nation, including our original sin: slavery. Our achievement gap is rooted not just in the enslavement of Americans, but the pervasive discrimination against people of color that has followed afterward for centuries.
If the generations that follow are going to dismantle structural racism and overcome this achievement gap, we have to start doing things differently. We’ve started fighting those inequalities in New York City, and it’s time to do it nationwide. One of my first priorities as President will be to provide universal pre-K for every child in the United States, as well as universal 3-K and full-day kindergarten. We’ll also create 500,000 new teaching jobs in the next 10 years. Every child in every corner of this country deserves the early education that will set him or her on a course to a brighter future.
There will be people who claim this idea is too radical to work nationwide. I remember hearing the same criticism when I was sworn in as mayor. But there’s no better testing ground for an idea than New York City, which is home to 8.6 million people, most of whom are unafraid to tell you what they think. We made it work there – and the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
I’m confident we can make it work nationwide – and I’m positive that it must. We’re locked in a battle for the heart and soul of our country, and small-scale solutions won’t solve our problems. Working people have been getting kicked around by a conservative agenda that has concentrated wealth in the hands of the richest Americans and major corporations and left everyone else out in the cold.
Fighting back and making sure working people come first is going to take radical change. I know we can do it, because we’re doing it in New York right now as we work to make it into the fairest big city in America. But we won’t succeed if we subject one more working family to a lottery that determines their kids’ future. Every single American family deserves pre-K for all.