NYC Mayor DeBlasio's Righteous Cause to Tax the Rich and Fund Pre-K Education


Across the political spectrum, people agree that “high quality” pre-kindergarten education – the kind that gives equal weight to social-emotional skills as well as academic ones – can even out the comparative life advantages between the children of wealthy and poor parents. Where it gets polarizing is how to fund such initiatives.

New York City is currently a flashpoint for the debate: liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio wants to pay for five years of citywide pre-kindergarten by siphoning a fraction of the wealth from the top 1% of income earners in the city. There's obviously a lot of pushback on this proposal. More centrist Governor Andrew Cuomo would prefer to finance it through the state budget. 

The governor’s plan would increase the likelihood that the program’s revenue stream would be chopped and mishandled in budgeting negotiations, as has happened in New York and other states in the past. Cuomo's idea also undermines the symbolism of the initiative: that the fortunes of the rich should be used to invest in the future of the poorest and most vulnerable. Put another way, that opportunity should be redistributed equitably. 

As a former inner-city school teacher, I have seen what this inequity looks like in the flesh, discernible in the way my sixth grade students communicated with one another and grappled with personal setbacks. My observations closely mirrored those of sociologist Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods, who found that the children of poor parents internalized “a sense of constraint” when it came to confronting institutional power and figures of authority, and exhibited a pervasive sense of “powerlessness and frustration”.

For my students, I tried to break through this sort of learned helplessness with lessons on how to communicate in ways that made others more likely to listen, and how to channel raw outrage into petitions for change. We learned to debate ideas without insulting individuals, analyzed the sort of conviction that animated rebels like Gandhi, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, and spoke at length about what it meant to be empowered. By the end of our term, many students were articulating their thoughts in newly sophisticated ways, and some even began to challenge school rules they disdained; one girl started a campaign to end the campus policy of tucked-in shirts.

Nevertheless, I ultimately cannot be sure that they will carry those lessons with them into the future. What I do know is that if they had received sustained education for academic, social and emotional skills beginning early in their lives, those lessons would have had sticking power well beyond graduation – and by extension, they would have better chances at upward economic mobility.  

Lareau also discovered that in contrast to the children of the poor, those of middle- and upper-tiered parents developed a “sense of entitlement” when it came to navigating the channels of power. The resulting developmental discrepancies between rich and poor children not only translate to a difference in economic advantage, but more gravely, also lead to a deformation of lower-tiered children’s ability to develop the sort of proactive critical thinking necessary for adulthood. When one feels “constrained” by institutions, one will either change them or acquiesce to them, and in the absence of a critical vision speared forward by a sense of possibility, it will be the latter.

Some conservatives claim that redistribution (ie the tax Mayor de Blasio proposes) is tantamount to theft. According to this line of thinking, the benefits a child inherits by being born into privilege are simply extensions of their parents’ rightfully possessed wealth, and therefore no social obligation exists to put anything “back in the pot” and help others.

The flaw in conservative thinking is that the advantages of wealthy children compound quickly, making it even harder for poorer peers to ever catch up. One of the only ways to increase the chance that poor children will develop the empowering habits of their wealthier peers (traits such as holistic thought, inner confidence and unbounded tenacity) is good early education. In other states that already have publicly funded pre-kindergarten report it is not only inspiringly egalitarian, but has also been shown to foster a closer form of parent-child kinship in low-income families and a life-long value on education. 

To truly be a force for equalizing society, such initiatives must be financed through taxes levied on the most affluent. It's the best way to lock-in funding, and would also foster a more equitable distribution of the stratospheric wealth that has so far privileged only a tiny sliver of the nation’s posterity. 

In an era of extreme social inequality, it would be the most striking way to declare a renewed commitment to ensure everybody has the freedom to lead their own lives as they see fit – or even have a chance to do so.

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