THE BLOG
10/09/2012 05:28 pm ET | Updated Dec 09, 2012

To Compete, Our Kids Need to Start Early and Learn Longer

I was there on September 5 at the Democratic National Convention for one of the most powerful moments of this presidential campaign, when my former boss Bill Clinton exhorted the crowd and the nation to a vision of shared prosperity and real investment in our future.

But getting there is going to take bold steps -- something our competitors around the world are taking head-on. And we have to be willing to invest the resources to make those steps a reality today.

Our greatest strength here in New York City has always been our workforce -- among the most productive in the world. But the jobs of tomorrow will require ever more skill and education, and we have to get serious about what it will take to prepare our kids to fill them.

We can take this challenge head-on, but it means we need a new strategy that starts kids learning sooner, and keeps them learning longer.

It begins with providing every child with quality early education.

This is the age when they develop the cognition and fundamental skills with numbers and letters. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called early education one of the best investments government can make because it returns dividends throughout a child's education and working life. Early education is proven to virtually eliminate educational disparities related to income, raise graduation rates and increase wages.

China sees it. By 2020, it will enroll 70 percent of children in three years of pre-school. India will have twice as many children prepared to learn on their first day of school by 2018.

But right now, of the 68,000 4-year-olds in New York City that should receive full-time pre-kindergarten, only 20,000 get it. The remaining children get no pre-k at all, or an inadequate half-day that's an anachronism in today's economy where parents work long hours. Too many kids are wasting critical years and months where they should be absorbing new words, skills and habits.

We need a system in place that when your son or daughter turns 4, the gears automatically start turning on his or her educational future. I'm not talking about a pilot project or a one-off for a few hundred lucky kids. This needs to be universal. Every child, in every borough deserves the right start -- and our economic future depends on it.

I have proposed a plan to close the gap of 50,000 completely and make pre-k universal for all 4 year olds for the first time in New York City. This isn't just for a few hundred kids lucky enough to make the cut. It would be for every child, in every borough.

Second, we need to innovate new ways to extend the school day and keep our kids learning after the 3 p.m. bell. Kids all across the country and around the world are spending up to 300 more hours learning than those New York City. Massachusetts has pioneered a model since 2005 that awards grants to schools partnering with community groups to add time to the end of the school day -- with a track record of doubling proficiency in core subjects like math and English.

A dynamic program run by the After School Corporation at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Harlem does just that. The Abyssinian Development Corporation partners with faculty to build out two extra periods at the end of every day, coordinating with teachers to supplement what's happening in the classroom. Of the 180 students in the school, 135 opted into the program. They keep learning every day until 5:30 p.m., which means they're off the streets, out of trouble and in a place where working parents know they're safe.

But it is one of only two middle schools in the city with this program. For most kids, learning stops when the school day ends.

We need to dramatically expand the number of kids with access to this kind of experience. I've called for a new City-funded grant program to allow middle schools to work more closely with experienced community groups to create new learning time between 3 and 6 p.m. All told, we'll fund spaces for two-thirds of all middle school students -- one of the biggest after-school expansions in city history.

These two major investments are critical to our kids' future and our city's economy, but they will need financial support to get up and running. Twenty years ago, New York City put in place a temporary surcharge to hire 4,000 more police and help kids stay of the streets-and it spurred a decades long reduction in crime that fundamentally transformed our city. We need just as intense an effort to face the challenge we have in education today.

I don't make the call for new revenue lightly, but I believe there is a way to do this fairly, progressively and responsibly. And I believe it starts by asking those who have done well and are succeeding to help our young people reach their full potential. The plan I've proposed includes a time-limited, five-year surcharge on incomes over $500,000 to fund these initiatives. That gives us five years to backstop these revenues by finding efficiencies in government and reducing costs in pensions and health care obligations.

Those doing well economically won't be the only ones asked to help invest in a future that brings more shared prosperity. But in this economy, I think it is right they be the first to step forward.

If we make those choices right, they help us build the middle class and they help us grow jobs throughout the city. And they show people a pathway to greater opportunity for their children, which is so desperately needed. This is who we have always been as a city. And if we stay true to our values, we can remain the most creative, the most dynamic and the best place to live and achieve the American dream.

Bill de Blasio is public advocate for the City of New York.