Using Democratic Planning Structures to Expand Industrial Policy

New Roosevelt Institute report explores how New York’s Pre-K for All program anticipated a new era of industrial policy

June 21, 2023
Ariela Weinberger
(202) 412-4270

New York, NY—In the last two years, the federal government has embarked on an affirmative program of industrial strategy to build needed industries at home. A surprising case study on this industrial policy trend comes from a look at implementation of New York’s successful effort to create a universal pre-kindergarten program in just two years.

Childcare as Industrial Policy Blueprint: Lessons from New York City’s Pre-K for All Implementation, a new Roosevelt Institute report, considers state capacity and democratic participation in industrial policy by looking at the implementation of Pre-K for All in New York City in 2014 under Mayor Bill de Blasio. Authored by Josh Wallack, a Leadership in Government fellow at the Open Society Foundation and former deputy chancellor (implementation lead) for early education at the NYC Department of Education, the report argues that the Pre-K for All program—”in which NYC created a free, high-quality pre-kindergarten program serving close to 70,000 four-year-olds in just under two years—was a forerunner of the ‘new industrial policy,’” offering critical lessons for today’s efforts.

“Industrial policy is about more than factories and technology. It is fundamentally about our power to shape the economy to meet our needs. NYC demonstrated the potential of early childhood industrial policy by translating an electoral policy mandate into a high-quality program that changed the day-to-day lives of tens of thousands of children. The program also created significant benefits for New Yorkers, creating a rationale for more collective action,” said Wallack.

The report also looks at Pre-K for All as an important example of a moment when a progressive government delivered concrete benefits for its people using traditional economic industrial policy strategy:

  • Supply-side strategy: New York City invested directly in early childhood programs to build out the supply of pre-kindergarten and make these programs free for all—essentially creating a public system in what had been a private market out of reach to most—rather than subsidizing demand by issuing vouchers, tax credits, or scholarships to families.
  • Building state capacity: The effort to build out this supply required expanding state capacity to move efficiently through development processes with many veto points. Wallack explains how his office organized itself to work with a wide variety of constituencies and agencies to get 1,800 sites—including district schools, programs run by community-based partners under contract with the city, and programs run by the city in newly acquired spaces built out by the city—functioning under two years.

Wallack’s report also considers the lessons he and his team learned throughout the process. He describes where stronger participatory processes might have led to better, more efficient, and more equitable outcomes. “Perhaps, with a more democratic, inclusive planning process, we might have made an even better program,” he says. “One that focused even more sharply on ensuring the program targeted resources to children living in NYC’s communities of color as part of a larger effort to create an anti-racist, just, and free city.”

“In the end, the fundamental issue with early childhood policy, as with all industrial policy, is mustering the political will to make and sustain the critical investments—in this case the ones we need to sustain and care for ourselves and our children. Processes and institutions are critically important, but this topic begins and ends, as it did in New York City, with the political struggle to put more of the resources we need under democratic control,” said Wallack.