Making "universal" meaningful for all children

Last week I had the privilege of attending DCAEYC’s meet and greet with Mayor Gray. While I am always excited to attend any event pertaining to early care and education, I was particularly excited to hear what the mayor had to say.

I have to say that for my first time hearing the mayor speak in person my expectations were met, maybe even exceeded. Mayor Gray began by discussing the importance of investing in children early in their lives to set them up for success rather than failure. He stressed the importance of early intervention and discussed how critical it is to make investments now in order to see results when the children are six and seven years old. 

He boasted about DC’s achievement of universal Pre-K -- the fact that we technically have a slot for every single three- and four year-old in the District -- and voiced his hope is that someday DC will be the role model in early education across the entire nation. DC Action shares this vision.

However, what I found most powerful was the challenge he posed to the audience. He invited everyone to join him on the next challenge in early care and education: infant and toddlers. Specifically, ensuring that infant and toddler programs are accessible to all children in the District.

I applaud the mayor on this challenge. I believe it shows his understanding of how critical the first years of a child’s life are, which politicians often overlook. Infants and toddlers are dependent on us for their basic needs and welfare and are possibly the most vulnerable citizens in our population and they need our support and investment.

But I in turn, have a challenge for the mayor. In his speech, he noted that he gets a lot of grief about the level of quality of education in the District, saying that he is often scolded for DC being “51 in a list of 51.” Indeed, now that we have ensured that there are enough slots for every three- and four-year old in our city, our focus must be ensuring that all children have access to high-quality programs right in their neighborhood. Bill Turque at the Post this week published a list of waitlists and available seats from the DCPS lottery. Is it any wonder that the waitlists are at desirable schools in NW DC and the empty seats are in schools not known for excellence?

What does universal mean if the programs are inherently unequal? My challenge for the mayor and our city: Let's work together to make sure "universal" is truly meaningful for all children in our city. As the administration expands its focus to infants and toddlers, let's look at ways to expand access while also boosting the quality and capacity of existing programs.