New York City Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio’s pledge to provide universal pre-school could serve as a financial windfall for some of his biggest allies.
De Blasio promised to create new pre-schools for thousands of children under the age of 5 by raising taxes on the 40,000 New Yorkers who earn more than $500,000 per year.
The expansion of the school system would provide members for the city’s powerful public sector unions, including the American Federation of Teachers, according to labor and education experts.
"Unions are increasingly unable to attract new members, so they’re looking to the government to help them unionize new segments of the workforce," said labor expert Max Nelsen. "If the government is in a position of influence, like doling out taxpayer dollars to preschools, it can influence them into unionizing."
Nelsen has already witnessed similar results in Washington state, where he works for the Freedom Foundation, a libertarian think tank.
Outgoing Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has instituted measures similar to project labor agreements in his universal pre-K program that will increase incentives to unionize pre-schools. As part of the program, pre-schools could lose funding unless they sign "teacher stabilization agreements" that make it easier to unionize.
"Universal preschool can manipulate businesses that are now beholden to the city for funding," Nelsen said. "It saves the union the trouble of going through a more traditional organizing process."
De Blasio campaigned as a stalwart liberal and won early endorsements from New York’s biggest union, SEIU Local 1199, during a crowded Democratic primary.
He has not been shy of his pro-union agenda, especially in terms of education. Along with his pledge to curb the limit the number of charter schools, which are typically outside of union control, he is reportedly considering AFT President Randi Weingarten as his schools chancellor.
Universal pre-k is de Blasio’s most ambitious educational goal, as it would require new institutions and new teachers to accommodate the new students. Some education experts, including the Manhattan Institute’s Kay Hymowitz, say that it could ultimately prove a wasteful use of taxpayer dollars.
"This is going to cost a lot of money and it’s not going to be productive," Hymowitz said. "[De Blasio] thinks he’s attacking inequality, but there’s absolutely zero evidence that he’ll succeed as far as his goals are concerned."
Universal pre-k programs are more effective at helping poor parents find daycare centers for their children at no cost than at educating the children and helping them climb the social ladder, as de Blasio promises, according to Hymowitz.
"All of the studies I’ve looked at show that the cognitive gains children have in even the best programs fitter away by the third grade," she said. "If you send the children home to disorder and upheaval and not much support for education, you’re not going to do them much good."
Hymowitz is not the first education scholar to point out the deficiencies in the system. Former Assistant Education Secretary Chester E. Finn found that "the overwhelming majority of studies show that most pre-K programs have little to no educational impact (particularly on middle-class kids) and/or have effects that fade within the first few years of school."
That has not stopped progressives from promoting a radical overhaul of early education. President Barack Obama is pushing to increase spending on pre-k programs from $20 billion to $95 billion to produce universal pre-school. Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, pledged to advance the funding in September.
Children may not benefit in the long-term under universal pre-k, but unions could be spared the expense of card check campaigns and the uncertainty of secret ballot elections, according to Nelsen.
"You don’t have to have unionized daycare centers to have universal pre-K, but this could create incentives to unionize those services without any clear benefit to the student," he said.