New York State is expanding its early childhood education program to 3-year-old children, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday at a meeting of his cabinet. Three years ago, the state began implementing universal pre-K for 4-year-olds. New York currently spends $750 million annually for the program. The new pilot program for 3-year-olds, Cuomo says, will build on progress already made in early childhood education and is the first step in making pre-K universal for 3-year-olds in the state. The Governor has committed $25 million to this program.
According to Cuomo, no other state has universal pre-k for 3-year-olds, and this program will bring New York to the forefront. The initial program will provide funds to support 3-year-old pre-K in 250 of the state’s neediest communities, providing seats for 5,000 3-year-olds statewide. To build on a continuum, schools that currently offer 4-year-old pre-K will be the first to expand. Both half- and full-day programs are envisioned. The initial focus will be on less-affluent communities as data shows an achievement gap exists between children from lower-income households and their more affluent peers.
Sherry Cleary, who heads the NYS Early Childhood Advisory Council, presented arguments for expanding New York’s pre-K program to 3-year-olds. Children from households on public assistance have half the vocabulary of students from higher-income homes. In her presentation, Cleary points to brain research that shows humans’ higher cognitive function is at its all time peak at age 3. By providing high-quality education at this age, New York can narrow this gap. “We have to fix it,” says Cleary. “If we wait too long, we can’t catch up.”
Aside from the improved quality of life for these children and increased opportunities for their future, an investment in pre-K education will reap financial benefits for the state. Research shows that children who begin their education early are more likely to graduate from high school and go on to complete four years of college. These graduates, Cleary points out, go on to find good jobs and pay taxes.
There are also short-term cost benefits. Pre-K education mitigates the number of children requiring special education and reduces the time children require these expensive services. Children who participate in early childhood education are less likely to be held back a grade, saving money and mitigating the stigma of grade retention. “Being with a 3-year-old is probably the most pleasant experience you can have,” says Cleary. “They are delicate and sweet, and they are smart. They are analytical and they look at stuff in ways that you’ve forgotten how to look … in New York, we want to capitalize on this.”