By Ezra Friedlander
The Universal Pre-K program, introduced by Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier this year, has been historic in many ways and certainly represents a tremendous opportunity for early childhood education in New York City. But once it was implemented it eventually became clear that the Orthodox community wouldn’t benefit as much as we had hoped to due to specific requirements that we were unable to meet.
A lot of this has changed yesterday, when the Mayor’s office issued a new set of guidelines to UPK that would more readily accommodate our community’s needs. Those who consider these changes merely as technical details are making a mistake. In many ways, yesterday’s announcement about revising UPK is the strongest signal of acceptance of the Orthodox community by an elected official at the level of Mayor of New York City that I can remember.
This should not come as a surprise to us. Allow me to elaborate: During his political career, this Mayor has served as a member of the City Council and actually represented significant parts of Boro Park. Throughout his tenure he became a part of our community, getting to know us quite well. His knowledge about the Jewish community citywide became even more pronounced while he served as Public Advocate of the City of New York.
I believe he liked what he saw. He saw us as a community who gives back to its own as well as to the city at large. He saw our extraordinary level of volunteerism and our vast network of social services. He saw our well organized structure of charitable giving and community assistance to those less fortunate. In short, he saw us as a community that, if you evaluate the aggregate, gives back much more than we receive.
So this particular action, regarding the UPK program, is unprecedented in the sense that it is an official recognition of our community as an important segment of this city’s diversity. It sends a clear message that this Administration is willing to accommodate the program’s requirements so that four year old children of our community can be more readily included. And for that we are clearly grateful.
The decision to adjust the UPK guidelines could not have been easy. There are certainly those within the the Mayor’s political base who share his progressive politics and policies and who firmly believe that any educational funding should first and foremost be directed towards the public school system. No doubt they see these changes as a direct affront to their principles and values. To them, I extend my invitation to break bread and meet us in a dialogue. I believe we can all work together to formulate a system that will benefit the children of both public and private schools in the best possible way.
From my vantage point as someone who professionally advocates on behalf of clients, I have this to say: The mere fact that the city at the highest level is reaching out in an unprecedented fashion to be inclusive and to open the doors of City Hall to engage our community and its concerns is a testament to this Administration’s appreciation of the importance of including our children into the fabric of the UPK program. To be clear, while I’ve always enjoyed a rather good relationship with the Mayor, I in fact worked with his opponent during the Democratic Primary for Mayor. So I am saying this objectively, not as someone whose political fortune is connected with the Mayor or this Administration.
There are those who have poured cold water on this announcement by City Hall, and to them I can only share the following advice: The fact is that this program is still in its infancy. It was only released last year for the very first time. We need to walk before we run, to crawl before we jump. To antagonize the mayor and this Administration at this time would be counterproductive in the extreme. Instead, we as a community need to acknowledge that this administration bent over backwards to hear our concerns. From my vantage point as someone who understands the value of an open door policy at City Hall, this level of engagement and attempt to incorporate our concerns into policy is immeasurable.
I applaud the Mayor’s decision and I also see it in stark contrast to the attitude of our previous Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who once famously described our community in derogatory terms. In an interview with The Atlantic, back in October of 2012, he was discussing his stance on various issues that affect our community. He was quoted then as saying: “Who wants to have 10,000 guys in black hats outside your office, screaming?” That comment was vile and thoughtless but it also seemed to reflect how Michael Bloomberg identified our community.
It hurts me to say this as I also see Bloomberg as a true humanitarian. But that comment was hurtful to me personally as a member of this community. It stands in contrast to comments made by our current Mayor who went out of his way to publicly announce that the city will accommodate Yeshiva children in the UPK program.
Yes, there are naysayers who criticize the UPK announcement as coming ‘too little too late’. They claim that it doesn’t go far enough and that many of our schools still do not qualify. My response to them is this: Indeed, the devil is in the details. However, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Every major social change is a work in progress and requires patience albeit persistence in order to achieve success. But to unilaterally and hastily dismiss this plan is foolish and is ultimately a disservice to our community, our children and the process of engagement with elected officials across the spectrum. Instead, we need to be vocal in unequivocal praise of Mayor de Blasio for this.
It is apparent to me that Mayor Bill de Blasio considers our community as part of the New York City family. He has said it publicly and in my opinion at the expense of his political capital. It is a big city with eight million plus people and many competing interests, many of which are not in sync with ours. Hence we need to acknowledge that in tangible ways and for now it means showing appreciation.
Eventually, we will need to include all communities in this conversation and to find a common ground. But right now, let us herald this decision as indicative of a Mayor who understands in his DNA our needs and values the essence of what our community stands for. Let us recognize it and welcome it without any ‘buts’ and let us be thankful. This is the responsible and moral approach for us to follow.
Ezra Friedlander is CEO of The Friedlander Group , a public policy consulting firm based in NYC and Washington DC. He may be followed on Twitter @EzraFriedlander or by visiting www.thefriedlandergroup.com Email: Ezra@TheFriedlanderGroup.com.