Now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has secured the funding for full-day pre-kindergarten, his administration faces the daunting task of hiring teachers and finding enough classrooms to be ready for 53,000 children by this fall and 20,000 more next year.
De Blasio and his allies acknowledge that they're trying to do in few months what has taken years elsewhere, but they say they are up to the challenge.
"For months, we have been planning every facet of these programs to ensure we were ready to launch the moment funding was secured," the mayor said this past week. "Today, the rubber hits the road and families will have more options for their children."
Universal pre-K was de Blasio's signature issue during his mayoral campaign, with a populist promise to fund it by taxing the city's wealthiest residents. But political realities dictated otherwise when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he'd back pre-K but not the tax.
Cuomo and state lawmakers included $300 million in the budget for pre-K in New York City and $40 million for the rest of the state. Since then, de Blasio has focused more on the nuts and bolts of the rollout and less on not getting his way in how to pay for it.
Voters may forget about the tax plan too if pre-K is perceived as a success.
"If we think the end result was the most important, then he got what he promised," said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College, who added that the tax-the-rich idea was campaign rhetoric that was "doomed from the start."
Efforts to provide free schooling to all 4-year-olds have gained momentum both locally and nationally, with President Barack Obama praising de Blasio and Cuomo this past week for their "major victory on early childhood education for middle-class families and those working to get into the middle class."
Some New York City public schools have offered pre-K for more than a decade, but there were never enough seats for all the families that might want them.
Backers say pre-K can erase the disadvantages faced by low-income children who start kindergarten behind wealthier peers whose parents can afford spending thousands of dollars a year for private preschool.
But few communities that have instituted universal pre-K have added so many classrooms so quickly.
In Boston, then-Mayor Thomas Menino said in 2005 that he wanted a classroom for every 4-year-old within five years. Nine years later, the city schools say they are only halfway to that goal. Boston schools now serve 2,300 pre-kindergartners and the new goal is 4,600 by 2018.
The state of Oklahoma committed to funding pre-K in 1998. Sixty-five percent of the state's 4-year-olds were in pre-K by 2002-03 and 76 percent, or 41,000 children, are now.
Thirty New Jersey school districts were ordered to provide pre-K in a 1998 court order. Five years later, 40 percent of eligible children were being served, and state education officials hope to reach 90 percent — 45,600 children — by September 2014.
New York state as a whole has a goal of universal pre-K but just 44 percent of children are enrolled statewide and there is no target date for achieving full coverage.
New York City currently has about 20,000 children in full-day pre-K and 26,000 in half-day pre-K, with some in public elementary schools and others in community-based organizations such as Head Start.
As it expands toward its goal of 73,000 full-day pre-K seats by fall 2015, the city will again call on community-based organizations to supplement the available classroom space in public schools.
About 1,000 new teachers will be hired for the public school and community-based pre-K slots by next fall. Each teacher must have a bachelor's degree and be on track to get a master's and early childhood certification.
Critics worry that the community-based pre-K programs will range from well-designed classes that prepare children for future success to poorly taught baby-sitting services.
"The key question is about the quality," said Elizabeth Lynam, vice president of the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonprofit watchdog organization. "When it's not of a certain standard there are no benefits, or no long-lasting benefits."
Elizabeth Hartline, the education director at Bank Street Head Start, warned in a Feb. 6 op-ed column on radio station WNYC's website that pre-K can be "shockingly bad" at some community-based organizations.
Hartline said she has heard stories "of movies watched regularly during the school day, of teachers who spend much of the day texting while children play, of teachers left alone in classrooms to tend to 20 children for hours."
De Blasio supporters say the administration will be able to deliver pre-K classes that are more than day care — and will evaluate teachers to see if they're performing.
"I feel hopeful," said Randi Levine, the early childhood project director for Advocates for Children of New York, a nonprofit that is helping to spread the word about pre-K. "This is a very ambitious plan, and we're glad it's ambitious because children are only 4 years old once."
Ruth Arsenec, a mother of two from Staten Island, took a day off from her job in a physical therapist's office to take part in a pre-K lobbying trip to the state Capitol in Albany last month.
Arsenec said she's glad she had free pre-K for her daughter last year and is looking forward to enrolling her son next fall.
Her daughter, Makayla, visited a firehouse and learned to spell her first and last name at her community-based pre-K program. Now Makayla is thriving in kindergarten at a neighborhood public school, her mother said.
"She made the honor roll," Arsenec said. "I never knew that kindergarten had an honor roll!"