02/15/2013 01:09 pm ET Updated Apr 17, 2013

NYC Can't Afford a Late Start to Early Education

It's time for a new education mantra: start early.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama threw down the gauntlet and called for pre-kindergarten for every child who needs it.

It was a historic commitment, all the more so because it came on the heels of Governor Cuomo making a similar pledge in his own State of the State last month.

Coming after a generation of authoritative research and pilot projects across the country, these two progressive leaders have affirmed the new national consensus around the importance of early education.

And yet here in New York City, our education mayor gave his 12th State of the City address this week -- and the defining education issue of our time didn't even register a mention. How can this be in the most forward-looking, competitively-minded city in America? How can we endorse a status quo that's leaving so many of our kids and working families behind?

Let's be clear: promises in Albany and Washington D.C. don't let New York City off the hook. Our need runs deep and our education crisis is far too urgent to wait for others to act. We have the capacity to lead the way. All we need is the political will.

This is exactly why last October, I put forward a plan for universal Pre-K for every 4-year-old in New York City. Right now, of the 68,000 children who need full-day Pre-K in New York City, only 20,000 receive it. The rest receive no early education at all, or a short three hours that don't suffice for working parents. For a city where one in three children lives in poverty, these deficits only perpetuate the status quo and hold kids back.

The National Institutes of Health recently reviewed Chicago's preschool program, determining every dollar it spent would yield $11 in economic benefits over the child's lifetime. A generation of studies has connected early education to higher graduations rates, lower rates of incarceration and higher earning power -- all of which was confirmed by the president in last night's speech. Yet, according to the president, only three in 10 4-year-olds are enrolled in pre-school programs.

We need a game-changer if we're going to get early education right.

My proposal for universal, full-day Pre-K would be backed by a progressive surcharge on incomes over $500,000. We would cover all 48,000 underserved kids, and provide the revenue to take us out of the realm of yearly cuts and put us on firm long-term footing. In addition, I'd fund a new generation of after-school programs for middle schoolers that will keep them on task and out of trouble from 3 to 6 p.m.

Imagine that. Every child in New York City would develop cognition, learn their numbers, letters and words, socialize with other kids and ready themselves for a school environment. No more entering school only to spend years playing catch-up. And instead of watching academics slide and bad behavior take hold when our kids reach middle school, they'd get the boost they need to stay on track.

The result would be nothing short of transformational for our schools and for our economic future.

Ten years ago, our mayor electrified the national education debate with bold strokes like establishing mayoral control of schools. But in the years since, we've ceded that leadership. It's time to get it back.

President Obama gets it. Governor Cuomo gets it. Now, we need a mayor who recognizes the need for a game-changing overhaul of our schools that starts with getting early education right. Anything less, and we are leaving our kids behind.

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