Preschool on the DL: How the Pre-K Squeeze is Impacting Everything

If you live in New York City, or at this point any city with 1 million plus people competitively vying for the withering dream of urban living for the entire family, you are likely well acquainted with the existential dread that settles upon parents when it comes time to consider the schooling of their young children. For much of the country, and recent history, placing your young child into a local preschool or kindergarten was about as reflexive an action as pulling into an available parking space at the mall, but city dwellers are forced to contend with a shortage of viable, affordable, and appealing options for their young children to fill. This shortage (For the current school year in NYC, there were 28,817 applicants for 19,834 slots in the city’s public pre-K programs) leads to both creative angling as well as absurdly cutthroat endeavors (not to mention often shelling out loads of money) to get your child into the right school or program, or else their academic future (at age 4) will be decidedly compromised.

I have known plenty of parents who are saddled with the task of finding a coveted spot for their young child in either an elite private school or a well-regarded public school. The stress and anticipation is enormous. Some parents elect to pack up and move to another district (presumably searching out more favorable odds) whereas others just abandon the city altogether and try their luck in the suburbs or in more rural areas. But some hardcore urbanites hang in there and make do by taking action themselves.

A recent New York Times article by Soni Sangha sheds light on this issue, while revealing some of the less-than-legal alternatives. From the article, a surprising fact arises: many would assume this is a problem primarily of the poor or underclass. However there is a dearth of high-quality preschool education available in NYC for poor children, but there is a growing middle-class gap when it comes to pre-K. “Access is actually lower for middle-income people than it is for people that are poor,” said Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, a research and advocacy group that supports universal prekindergarten. Those who say middle-class families should just pay for preschool themselves, Mr. Barnett said, “don’t understand how expensive it is.” The Times article goes on to report that the lack of affordable pre-K means that middle-class children lag behind their more affluent counterparts when they get to kindergarten. 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, according to national statistics from the advocacy group Pre-K Now, financed in part by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Sangha’s shared experience is with the grassroots alternative to the pre-K rat race, which entails parent-run co-op pre-Ks, where parents work together to create a school (sometimes run out of a parent’s home) that matches their educational philosophy and worldview. These are parent run, parent financed, parent staffed, and parent administered programs that, while providing an accessible alternative for beleaguered parents, also requires a lot of sweat equity on behalf of the participating parents. And if that were not enough, many of these co-ops operate illegally, not because they are sub-par, but simply because obtaining the required permits and passing teacher background checks can be so prohibitively expensive and time-consuming that most co-ops simply choose to fly under the radar.

As clandestine as this may seem, this model is becoming both an appealing option, as well as last gasp effort, for many families struggling to find quality early childhood education. Opinions range on this matter, as some don’t feel the situation is nearly as dire and desperate as you would be lead to believe, whereas others (likely those on the front lines) think it is a lot worse than the newspapers let on. What is your feeling on the apparent shortage of spaces/programs for young children? Is moving out of the city a suitable and acceptable option, or should parents elect to go the co-op route, with all that entails? Is there any clear reason why we are in this mess?

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Jennifer C.
Past Member 3 years ago

Good to know. Thanks.

K s Goh
KS Goh3 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Marie W.
Marie W.3 years ago

Try less TV and more books.

Paula G.
Paula G.3 years ago

Sometimes formal education begins TOO early. If Mom is at home and taking care of kids, do the informal thing and take them to the park or whatever. If they are Nannied that should be her 9or his) job., Self directed play is getting lost in the world of scheduled play dates, pre-kindergarten and computer based play. Give them cardboard boxes, crayons and maybe a few stickers. Let them be creative not crowded into mainstream programs which are over rated and often create a stressed child rather than a head start.

Shan D.
Shan D.3 years ago

"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..."

I can't wrap my mind around this. How hard is it, even for working parents, to teach a kid the alphabet and how to count to 10? Even Sesame Street teaches kids that age how to count to 20!

As for co-op pre-K schools, that's a great idea, as long as the parents agree on and fulfill the standards they set. It's insane that people have to get permits to teach a kid the alphabet!

Laura S.
Laura S.3 years ago

Being child-free, I realize that my statements don't carry much weght here, but I never went to a preschool and could count and was readiing by the time I reached kindergarten. I suppose that was the result of having a mother who didn't work outside the home and an older sister who was no slouch in school. Different times, I guess.

For those parents going "underground", it seems like a reasonable solution. Even in my day, there was often one home on the block where one mother would be caring for several chldren during the day, although I wouldn't go so far as to call it "schooling". The lack of permits wouldn't worry me too much as long as everyone is well-acquainted with staff and conditions. Good luck to them.

Danuta Watola
Danuta Watola3 years ago

great article!! thanks

Khristi N.
Khristi N.3 years ago

Thanks. Good read.

Nyack Clancy
Nyack Clancy3 years ago


Robert O.
Robert O.3 years ago

Thanks Eric.