The Latest Civil Rights Issue of Our Day

Tuesday morning, at an appearance with her husband the Mayor, and Al Sharpton, First Lady Chirlane McCray decried Senator Skelos’ refusal to allow a vote on the tax increase that is intended to fund universal pre-Kindergarten for all New York City schoolchildren.  “Make no mistake,” proclaimed McCray, “this is the defining civil rights issue of our day!”

It is hard to keep up with our day’s defining civil rights issues.  Here is a brief list of some of them, announced by a variety of politicians, billionaires, and activists:

“[Marriage equality] is the civil rights of our day.  It’s the issue of our day.”—Vice President Joe Biden

“[School choice] is the civil rights issue of our day.”—Condoleezza Rice

“[Stop and frisk] is the urban civil rights issue of our time.”—Al Sharpton

“[Fighting against voter ID laws] is the sit-in of our day.”—Michelle Obama

“[High speed internet access] is the civil rights issue of our time.”—Antonio Villaraigosa

“Transgender equality is the civil rights issue of our time.”—Joe Biden (again)

“[Comprehensive immigration reform] is one of the biggest civil rights issues of our time.”—Mark Zuckerberg

“Eliminating poverty in America is the civil rights issue of our day.”—Diane Ravitch

“Human trafficking [is] one of the foremost civil rights issues of our day.”—Bush Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzalez

Etc., etc.

Anyway, Mayor de Blasio, President Obama, and the rest of the smart money appear to agree that education is the latest real civil rights issue of our day, so let’s just stick with that one for now.  

Universal pre-K is considered a hot civil rights issue because it is believed to be a solution to the persistence of the racial “achievement gap.”  The gap, which represents approximately one standard deviation in test scores between white students and black and Hispanic students, has proven remarkably resistant to closure.  One problem with closing the gap is that instituting pedagogical change impacts everyone: in a case of the rising tide that lifts all boats, how does one target only the under-performers without helping the ones who are doing well already?

A study from 2004 that is now getting a lot of attention, and which was cited by Speaker Mark-Viverito at the Council hearing on UPK yesterday, claims that low-income children hear 30 million fewer words than the wealthier members of their cohort by the time they are 3 years old.  Closing this “word gap,” it is believed, could be the key to improving poorer children’s cognitive development and engagement with learning.  Of course, by the time these kids start pre-K, it is too late, and their word deficiency has already hobbled them to some degree.

Still, starting at age 4 is better than nothing, so the reasoning goes.  Hence the drive for UPK.  As the Speaker yesterday noted, “low-income children of color benefit the most from participation in high-quality pre-school,” though the data are mixed on exactly what those benefits are.  Head Start, a federal program targeting low-income children under 5 years old, has been a going concern for almost 50 years, has an annual budget of $8 billion, and more than 22 million children have participated.  The Department of Health and Human Services however, in a 2011 study, determined that gains, while real, tended to fade by 3rd grade.  Most studies have also confirmed the “word gap” hypothesis that age 4 is too late to make any important gains.

Better late than never, one imagines.  Not clear why it is worth it to the Mayor to stake his political capital on a showdown with Albany on how to fund it, though.