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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Joins Nicholas Kristof for a Live Interview on Twitter

March 29, 2019

Nicholas Kristof: Thanks very much for joining this conversation on Twitter and Facebook with Mayor Bill de Blasio. We are going to focus on something that actually isn't – doesn't get all that much attention in the news and that is early childhood and pre-K, because Mayor de Blasio started an important pre-K program here. And my own belief is that just about the highest return investment one can find in America is not hedge funds, it's not private equity, it's early childhood. And, indeed, Mr. Mayor, that was one of the reasons why you started this program. Tell me a little bit about the New York program and how it came to be.

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Yeah. And Nick, I agree with that statement deeply. This is one of the best investments that our government here in New York City has ever made. And we did it because we believed exactly that – that, in fact – so the American education system misses the fact that that zero to five age range is when children can learn and grow the best. I just – that is the foundation that is the table setting. And instead of saying, as a country, let's focus there and let's put our resources there, we, in fact, don't start full-day education on a consistent basis in this country until kids are six.

Kristof: And we lag other OECD countries in this.

Mayor: Yeah, we – zero to five is when it matters. So, we start at six – and so it's backwards. So I felt strongly. I had been a public school parent, very involved in my local community in Brooklyn, and I saw it and I – and my kids got full-day pre-K and they had an extraordinary experience. So I said, look, we're literally backwards. Let's put the energy on the early side of the spectrum. I made it the number one platform item in my campaign for mayor. And at that point, I'll be very real about this and say, I combined it with a call for a tax on wealthy New Yorkers to pay for it, which I think the combination animated a lot of energy. But what I found, which was really interesting, was because we proposed a broad based approach. We didn't say just for some kids, we said this should become a universal right. The support kind of intensified beyond anything I would have expected –

Kristof: Because it was universal –

Mayor: Because it was universal –

Kristof: Not just a means tested program for poor kids.

Mayor: It was for every kind of economic group, every background, and the intensity of feeling was just as sharp in, you know, in the South Bronx or in Brownstone, Brooklyn or the Upper West Side of Manhattan – the exact same energy. And I think some of that is because it's not just about economics, not just about a New York family would pay $10,000 to $15,000 to get the equivalent if they have to go to a community center or a private school or something like that. It was that – a recognition of the equality it would create, that everyone's starting at the same starting line, which I think a lot of people embraced and the sort of, effort to undermine the stress that has pervaded so much of our lives lately, that here was the government actually giving you something that was going to be easy to use that was going to be a guarantee.

You know that for a lot of parents previously, like, getting into a pre-K was a giant question, right? Like people are competing for the seats the pre-K and praying their kid will get accepted like they were going to Harvard. And we needed to take all that stress and all that confusion out of the system. And I've got to tell you, people have really – I mean they voted with their feet. When I came into office it was about 20,000 kids in full-day pre-K programs in New York City. Today it is almost 70,000. And it is a universal right now in New York City.

Kristof: And you've also started a pre-K for three-year-olds.

Mayor: Yes.

Kristof: Tell me about that.

Mayor: We call it 3-K just for the fun of it. And for the first time, and we have said, the three-year-old level – because we understand that zero to five opportunity – we could do the same thing with three-year-olds very effectively. They can really excel in the classroom setting. And we said we had space in some public schools and we certainly had other organizations, community organizations, charter schools, religious schools wanting to work with us. So, I said, let's go on that same path and make it a universal right. We started with zero in our public school buildings. By September, we will have 20,000 kids in our 3-K initiative. And what's been amazing, Nick, is how quickly everyone adapted to it. The kids – most especially the kids have been great and they've been able to be in that kind of setting very, very positively and productively. But the entire community around the – the school communities have really embraced the model.

And now the potential of two full years of early childhood education in the time we used to miss entirely and doing them both on a universal level – you're talking about societal change, you’re talking about, school systems that we used to think, in our case – and I know that around the country – could only reach so far, could only get so much done. This potentially revolutionizes public education if we get this right.

Kristof: The reason I became passionate about early childhood education was a lot of the brain research showing that kids’ brains are highly malleable, that when kids are exposed to stress, cortisol builds up in the brain, it affects brain architecture, and that high-quality early childhood education can truly change outcomes in the long run, I mean, decades later. But – and I think that is all totally true, well documented, but there's actually another important reason for providing early childhood programs. And, it's something that we've talked about and that is not just the benefit to the kids, but the benefit to the parents to work. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Mayor: Yeah. Because we have to recognize – so most families in New York City, even up to what we used to call middle class, are struggling to make ends meet. And that's true all over the country. So, the minute it becomes a choice between early childhood education, or you know, other expenses in your life, you're putting immense stress on that situation and you're basically saying to families, hey, maybe you should forgo that. And it also affects the ability to work for so many parents, and this is particularly true for single-parent families, which are more numerous now. If you have to go and pick up your child in the middle of the day or there is no place that you can be secure with your child, you’re going to end up working  or you're going to work a lot fewer hours than you should to take care of your family. So we've done two things simultaneously.

We said, here is a secure, reliable option. You will not pay a dime. You know, it's coming for your family. So there on your ledger – you know, when you're sitting at your kitchen table – you don't have to spend that $10,000 or more for your child. But second, we're saying to that parent, you can go out and work now. You can go out and really improve your family circumstance and not have to make ends meet so desperately. The response has been amazing and it's beautiful because it's across the demographic spectrum. The power of this is it – and I think this is a really emotional reality that makes it potentially a much more important issue in the bigger political debate as well – it is about equality. It is about preparing our kids for their future. It's about the parents being able to work. It's about people being able to make ends meet. It actually unites a lot of different elements. And it's also about reducing stress in people's lives and particularly in the lives of parents. And there's a lot that comes together in this.

Kristof: I mean we were talking before we started about the fact that female labor force participation in the U.S. – you know, this is the country that, we helped pioneer ushering women into the labor force. We were leaders in that globally. And since 1990, we have lagged and we are now behind Japan. I – in my column today, I have the – I think we're number 30 out of 35 countries in the OECD in female labor to be more specific. And I think that a reason for that is that we don't have nearly as good child care options as most other advanced countries do. So, you know, I think that it all comes together. Now, I wonder what other – presumably other cities have been dropping by and inquiring. So what are the lessons learned in New York? What do you tell them about how they should approach a pre-K?

Mayor: There's a tremendous amount of interest all over the country – a lot of folks who want to see how we did it. So, the first thing I say is – it's not coy, it's the truth, you can't afford not to if you really want the outcomes. If you want to fundamentally improve your school system, if you want to, give children a chance to reach their potential, if you want to avoid all those social ills later, because we have seen this proven so many times over – a child that has a pre-K and I think even more so 3-K, the chance of them staying in school, not being involved with law enforcement in a bad way, having self-confidence, having the kind of behavioral dynamics that will be successful in school and work, is proven many times over. So, it is really an investment question.

Do you want to invest a lot more on the back end or do you want to make the smart investment on the front end? Plus what it does to open up possibilities for families. I think a lot of people are hearing that and I would argue, and it’s – this is if you had said, give me the most pragmatic cold discussion, vis-à-vis educational, strategic thinking, I'd say, okay, even if you say within your current budget, let's say you say, I can't find another dime anywhere, then orient more of your budget to the early side. It's just – the analogy I make is what business in the world would invest a lot in the less profitable piece when they could be investing in the more profitable piece. We know the investments at four and three years old are the highest bang for the buck, if you will, in addition to the moral reasons to do it.

So my argent to school systems is if you have to shift resources, shift them. If you go back to your community and ask for new resources, this is something that actually has a lot of popularity. We found it – it became such a demand in New York City through the 2013 mayoral campaign when I went to the State capitol the next year to get some of the funding, the head of steam behind it and the universality of the support across demographic groups kind of left our legislators without many options. They felt they had to do it and they've never turned back since. That political dynamic, that support, that moment can be created I think in a lot of places.

Kristof: And so – well Elizabeth Warren has proposed a national program. I mean it's – she talks a lot about child care, but effectively it is an education program as well. Some red states have done pretty well in this Oklahoma –

Mayor: Oklahoma. I love them. I love them.

Kristof: – Universal Pre-K. I mean, what would you recommend to presidential candidates, to other political candidates around the country running for office? You know, is this something that is not only the right thing to do but is actually going to be politically beneficial?

Mayor: Yeah, I do believe it will be. I think it's the right thing to do and I think in many ways when something's right thing to do, you'd be shocked how politically beneficial it can be as well. But I would say it's a little bit of a, if you build it, they will come. If you had taken a poll in New York City in 2012 – would pre-K have registered like a lot of other traditional issues? Probably not so much, but if you actually talked to parents about their lives and what they needed, you would have heard a lot of interest.

It just hadn't crystallized as an issue. When – I'm proud to say, you know, I put it front and center as the number one platform item and I said, this is the first thing we have to do. If we get education right and a lot of other things [inaudible] right, and if we're going to fix education, this is the way to start. If you make it central, there's a tremendous, I think, sort of attractive force to this because it unites so many concerns at once, and it starts with people's deep desire – and this is true of parents, grandparents, family members – to see the best for the children in their life.

I think there's a deepening concerned about equality in this country and a frustration and anger at income inequality. And we can see that our society is becoming less equal instead of more equal. This is a great equalizer. And then there's a recognition of how many people are struggling economically and the minute you're talking about taking a vast economic burden off the shoulders of the shoulders of working people, well, that becomes an issue that becomes very, very interesting. But it will only become a major issue if candidates are willing to put it forward. In other words, the audiences there, but until enough candidates talk about it, it won't reach its potential as an issue.

Kristof: And I – [inaudible] buy the point about addressing inequality, you know, I think at the end of the day our efforts to help troubled 20-somethings don't frankly have a great record. It's hard. Our efforts to help troubled 16-year-olds, it's hard, again. Our efforts to help trouble two-year-olds, have a pretty good – they have a great success rate. You know, it's a lot easier to help invest in the front end and help a kid at that age rather than try to undo difficulties later on.

Mayor: I want to make two points. I agree with that and one is imagine, you know, in the search for a more perfect union, imagine if every child in America was starting at the same starting line – truly. And we believe in this city, it's not only four-year-olds, it will be three-year-olds soon. In the next few years that will be universal in this city. So, now, two full quality years of early child education [inaudible] everyone at once, you're talking about a transcendent impact, not just on education but on society. Everyone's learning together. Everyone's getting opportunity together. It changes the rules of the game. I think it's that powerful and there's that much potential. And I also think in the end that for this reality of parenting, it is harder and harder to be a parent in America. The modern world has not been particularly friendly to parenting. This is a great de-stressor this – finally some guarantees in life.

It's something that you can depend on. And I think that is another thing that's being missed in this discussion, that as an investment question, this really helps parents to be better parents. It helps teachers to be better teachers. It's such a smart front end investment and you know, doing it right – the multiplier effect. I think it's stunning how much money you save later. But we haven't tried – you’re right, those later programs, they're knowable, but it's a lot harder.

By the way, one other point, mental health – we've trained our pre-K teachers in how to look for signs of mental health challenges so they can be addressed very early on. In America, and my wife's done so much work on this, typically about 10 years passes between the manifestation of a mental health challenge and treatment. Imagine pre-K teachers seeing four-year-olds – okay, there's a problem, let's get an evaluation, let's see if that child needs some help now – how many problems you're going to avert later if you get that first look of that child early.

Kristof: Well I'd like to invite people to offer questions. We have some questions that have come in and I should say, you know, no questions about the Mueller report. We want to focus [inaudible]

Mayor: [Inaudible]

Kristof: You know, this is an issue that doesn't get a lot of attention and we had some questions about that the teacher pay at the community-based organizations that are providing a pre-K and arguing that those are underfunded and the teachers don't get the same amount of pay. So can you, can you address that?

Mayor: Yeah, there's a real question of parity that we've been trying to address. So, the first thing we did was we increased the pay for those teachers in the community-based organizations substantially. And we're also seeing a number of those teachers now moving on to our public school system and they're going up in pay in the process too. So, there really is an opportunity track that's very meaningful – and we've added thousands of teachers between a pre-K and 3-K. But we have to do better on the parity point because we want those community organizations to be strong and, by the way want – we want them to be part of the four-year-old and three-year-old level, but you and I've talked about this too, there's more to be done earlier and we want those organizations to be part of that. We want it – there's more support we can provide for two-year-olds in one-year-olds too.

Kristof: Janice says, at every preschool, is it free? Will there be free extended day for low-income working moms? And is there transportation?

Mayor: So yes, free. So the system that we have is universal and 100 percent free. In terms of extended day, at this point that is a reality school by school, meaning some schools have been able to put together the funding to do extended day or some nonprofit organizations in the community have been able to do extended day as well. So we're trying to build out those models. But the most important thing we did was we said for the school hours, in the case of pre-K for example, typically 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, let's say, that is guaranteed and that is free.

Kristof: There's the – so this is universal. I mean there is a debate within the kind of bleeding heart community –

Mayor: You're a charter member –


Kristof: And I'm actually a little ambivalent about that. So, I would say that the evidence is overwhelming about the benefits to at-risk, low-income kids from pre-K. I think that some affluent kid from the – on Central Park West is not going to hugely gained from this. They're probably getting a lot of stimulation from home. And so the question becomes whether scarce resources should be allocated to make a program universal which tends to get it more credibility, tends to make it – build a broader buy-in, versus those targeted to the most at-risk kids. How do you feel about that?

Mayor: I feel strongly that the universal model is needed. First of all, you know, we want to help all kids, all income levels, all backgrounds. And the socialization process alone that happens, particularly in a public school setting, is irreplaceable. You know, we have a society that’s gone through its share of divisions lately. We have a society that lacks a sense of common purpose. One of the ways to create a sense of commonality is everyone having that public education experience together. So, I think that alone is a powerful point. I think the fact is that, we've seen the energy and support for this, which guarantees its strength. So I believe in it morally. I believe in it strategically from an educational point of view, but I also argue strenuously a universal benefit comes with the buy-in, as you say, to be sustainable and to keep deepening. So right now let's be cold. The country isn't even close to universal pre K, it is not even close to universal full-day kindergarten.

So we're missing the boat by a lot. Now our competitors – and I always make this point – competitor nations, some of them most obviously China, Germany is another great example, they are very smart about their educational investments and they link them to economic destiny and they're strategic. They don't think it's an optional thing. They don't think it's something that maybe one community does and another one. They have much stronger national models and vision of how to proceed. We allow American education to be basically decided by a bunch of local decision makers, no particular pattern or vision, no significant strategic funding from the national level in the scheme of things, certainly not when it comes to early childhood.

How about if we said – we say in the modern world, in a very competitive economic world, in a world where education determines economic destiny, like never before in history, we're going to make it a requirement that every community have quality full-day, early childhood education and the federal government must fund that substantially for that to be the reality. And the only way we're going to do that and have the buy-in and have the support is if it is a universal right.

So I think in a funny way that from my point of view the kind of moral philosophical aligns nicely with the pragmatic here and the political.

Kristof: We had a few questions about the mechanics of how it works for working parents like in the evenings or, you know, afterschool. Christina asks, how will we support working parents after school and during summer months?

Mayor: Look, it is a – in an imperfect world, we're doing this step by step. Job one was to secure the school hours during the school year and make it a universal right and make it free and make it easy to use. And other thing we did, which you'll get a kick out of, is we had to let people know about it. So we sent brigades of outreach workers out into communities nights, weekends, block parties, street fairs, barbershops, beauty salons, literally evangelizing and helping parents know and signing them up and making it easy and facilitating. That's all been fantastic.

Unquestionably, if you had perfect resources, you would want that afterschool piece for parents who were working longer hours, you would want the summer equivalent as well. I think pragmatically, job one is to establish full-day pre-K as a national priority and then go the next step to the three-year-old level. As we develop further to add those add-ons so that it is a much richer experience meaning it will be there for working parents on a much deeper level.  But [inaudible] sort of in the vein of you have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. We're not even crawling as a country yet when it comes to early child education, it's totally catch-as-catch-can and it we’re wildly off the mark at this point.

Kristof: I remember when President Obama proposed in the State of the Union address a national pre-K – then John Boehner, sitting behind him actually applauded that as [inaudible] maybe a moment of –

Mayor: Unity.

Kristof: But of course it got nowhere and it's hard for me to see this getting very far at the federal level, which is one reason why I think it's important to highlight the local and state efforts.

Mayor: Well, I would say two things. One, I think that was a very powerful moment when President Obama said it. I think it has to be a constant in the national political discussion. It has not been to date. I believe if it becomes a norm to talk about, the support will grow rapidly. We certainly saw that here in New York. And this is an issue that can be put on the map and there is a potential for a national, positive policy because if you had a national funding stream, a lot of other dominoes would start to fall favorably. Then to the local level, look, the good news is localities are sharing with each other and borrowing good ideas and we're proving that this is a fantastic investment.

So I would say to anybody in local leadership, in public sector, in business, in any form of a local leadership, lean into this because of the outcomes. The multiplier effect here is stunning. And I think some localities have shown that once they stepped up, they found tremendous support. Oklahoma is a great example. It’s not the place you would have first assumed but some people got the ball rolling and then you found that actually, you know, parents, even lawmakers saw the virtue in it because it was put on the agenda. It's an issue, it's almost – I don’t want to say it’s irresistible, but it's an issue that once it's on the agenda, the logic, the power, and the emotion of it start to take over in a good way and create real moment.

Kristof: One of the things I like about it too is that frankly K-through-12 has been become kind of a toxic space in terms of people, and they're just a lot of very different views about how to improve K-through-12 education, whereas the zero to five space there is – I mean it seems to me there is a greater opportunity to actually leverage that common belief into actually getting kids educated.

Mayor: There's more unity on it for sure. I think it does lend itself to bipartisanship. I agree with you. It's sort of more outside of the education cultural wars. The other interesting thing is when we put it together, we had a wonderfully [inaudible] view out of sheer necessity. We were going from 20,000 kids. We had given ourselves two years to get the 70,000. Now, I’ll remind you, we have more kids in pre-K in New York City than the San Francisco public school system has in their entire school system.

Kristof: Wow.

Mayor: So I mean this was a huge, huge undertaking and we – it quickly became apparent, we couldn't just do it with public school buildings and public school teachers. It wasn't enough space. We reached out to charter schools, we reached out to community organizations, Christian schools, Jewish schools, Muslim schools, everybody. And it became this fascinating kind of unifying reality.

Everyone had their different take, but they all have to meet the same standards obviously. But we said, let's make this a unity moment. You know, no matter what differences people may perceive, here's something everyone can be a part of. It's good for the kids in each community and everything is going to be funded because we have to get to this goal. We made it a really rigorous goal and we put high quality standards. It's a common core curriculum, which I think makes sense when it's supported. And this actually was interesting. You say common core is often a controversy.

Around a lot of controversy around common core was putting the curriculum in place without putting the professional development and the other supports to actually prepare people for. In this case we said we're going to put the resources into get everyone ready to meet this standard. I have to tell you how beautiful it was to see everyone sort of, you know, with the same – everyone with the same oars rowing in the same direction and how much unity of purpose it created. And there's something positive and I think very hopeful and the notion of maybe this is one thing that we all could agree on. We'd like to see our youngest kids really prepared for life. Maybe that is more [inaudible] than we realize and it could be a nice proving ground for some more unity on some other fronts as well.

Kristof: We're out of time, but let me ask one more question [inaudible] –

Mayor: You’re in charge, you can do whatever you want.

Kristof: [Inaudible] cameras. And thanks very much for all the questions you folks have been asking. But just one last question, briefly if you can, I mean you alluded to the fact that indeed we need to start before three that it’s not just pre-K that, you know, there are an awful lot of kids who already by the age of two or three, that they been exposed to toxic stress to difficulties. They're already behind at that age. And some of those early programs have a tremendous return – encouraging breastfeeding, supporting parents to talk to their kids, and this kind of thing. What – is that a fruitful area? Is that – does that – is that also popular with voters?

Mayor: I think it is. I think it's incredibly fruitful. I think a little bit goes a long way in those veins. We have a pretty conscientious effort to try and encourage parents to talk to their babies, read to them. Just that educational effort pays off. There's some home visitation programs that make a lot of sense and are – those are more targeted to where the need is greatest, but that's a high-value approach.

You're right, there is some shocking stress and difficulty out there even for the very youngest kids, but by the same token, the adaptability and the potential for evolution of kids is amazing. You have to get to them as early as possible and counteract that negative and then create a consistently positive dynamics. So I would say if you had to make it really simple, what we're doing in New York City, I hope becomes the norm elsewhere.

We've now secured the four-year-old level, it existed as something for only a minority of kids. Now it's all kids. Soon we've got – we will have 20,000 kids at the 3-K level that will eventually become universal. And then we need to keep going with whatever form of support. Maybe it won't be as universal, maybe it will be more targeted. But what can we do for two-year-olds next? What can we do for a one-year-old? What can we do to help train parents even before the birth of the child in the ways to support a child's education? And just that vocabulary being around them alone changes outcomes if it happens early enough. The irony is – and you've been one of the great voices on this, I give you a lot of credit – the irony is we're not even talking about it as a country and yet it is how we prepare our children for life and how we give them a chance for success.

If you think about it, isn't that one of the first things we should be talking about? How we prepare that next generation to actually be all that we would love them to be?

Kristof:  Well, we're not talking about it as the country now but we are talking about it here and –

Mayor: There you go.

Kristof: Thank you very much for joining this conversation. Thanks to all of you for watching and joining us and we'll be continuing to follow the program here. Thanks so much and thank all of you.

Mayor: Thank you.

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