Childcare as Industrial Policy Blueprint: Lessons from New York City’s Pre-K for All Implementation

June 21, 2023

Pre-K entrance at the PS 130 The Parkside School (Lower School) on November 19, 2020 in New York City.

“An early childhood industrial policy is a necessary part of creating a just society. Without such a policy, our care system depends on free labor in the home and vastly underpaid labor in a variety of other settings—mostly from women of color.”


As implementation of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), and the CHIPS and Science Act begins, discussion of “industrial policy” has moved from academia and think tanks to the mainstream press. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy recently noted the return of “ambitious industrial policy . . . designed to strengthen manufacturing, hasten a green energy transformation, create well-paid jobs, and insure American technological leadership over China” (Cassidy 2023).

With that attention has come debate over two questions: Do we have the “state capacity”1 to build the physical infrastructure needed to make a transition to a greener and more competitive economy quickly enough to meet the moment (Demsas 2022; Lindsey 2021)? And do we need to streamline our planning and permitting processes to do it successfully (Bagley 2021; Klein 2022)?

For example, while reminding us to consider ways in which past efforts to build fast and big ran “roughshod” over marginalized communities, then-National Economic Council Director Brian Deese called on the nation to reexamine certain processes, like those for permitting sites for infrastructure projects, as one way to “demand progress over inertia” and “unpack the many constraints that cause America to lag other major countries . . . in delivering ambitious projects on time and on budget” (Deese 2022).

However, Roosevelt Director of Climate Policy Rhiana Gunn-Wright recently cautioned that reforms to such processes, while having limited impact on timelines, will “make frontline communities more vulnerable to exploitation” and “make it more difficult for there to be a credible means of democratic control and participation” during this period of transformation, risking the erosion of trust needed for success (Gunn-Wright 2023).

Other scholars of participatory democracy, such as Hollie Russon Gilman at New America, see this as a critical moment not just to defend current processes but to “[revitalize] democracy” by “shar[ing] decision-making power with local communities” in IRA projects (Laforge, Florini, and Gilman 2023), emulating processes like the participatory budgeting process in New York City, in which residents come together over a series of months to allocate public funds for neighborhood projects (Sterrenberg 2018).

This report will consider these questions of state capacity and democratic participation in planning by looking back at the recent implementation of universal pre-kindergarten (known as “Pre-K for All”) in NYC in 2014. While this may seem like an odd choice for a case study on industrial policy, this report argues that the 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.” After making that case, I will show how the experience of implementing Pre-K for All can help us address current questions about democratic planning and industrial policy by:

  • Summarizing the implementation of Pre-K for All, focusing on its development and use of state capacity;
  • Analyzing the role that the proposal played in the campaign and election of NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, and demonstrating that it was treated as an electoral mandate by the incoming administration and a broad range of other political actors;
  • Exploring the extent to which the effort was subject to democratic processes and checks during implementation, and their positive and negative impacts;
  • Examining later efforts at more participatory, democratic planning efforts launched to further the program’s equity goals and share power with important partners; and
  • Surfacing potential challenges and tensions that emerge when government teams commit to democratic planning while implementing large-scale industrial policy.

This report ends by looking at a few serious flaws of the Pre-K for All program that could have been addressed by earlier and more democratic planning, and asks several questions:

Could the program have incorporated more participatory democratic planning in the early stages of implementation within existing democratic structures?

  • How can actors within and outside government manage the tensions between participatory planning processes and more traditional democratic processes such as elections and legislative appropriations?
  • How much control should be granted to stakeholder groups, as opposed to elected officials and the staff they appoint?

We should not assume answers to these questions: They should be subject to democratic discussion. And these discussions should include more people with experience in implementation roles in government, from disparate areas of industrial policy. The tensions of democratic planning in industrial policy play out differently in different domains, with different stakes, actors, and legacy processes. This topic would benefit especially from case histories from those various fields, and an epistemically humble, ground-up approach to conclusions.

Finally, an appendix briefly describes some promising later examples of early childhood implementation teams in other communities that are addressing the tensions described in the report in creative ways. These kinds of case studies would both help continue the exploration of these questions in early childhood industrial policy and offer lessons for all students of industrial policy implementation.

I approach this topic primarily as a practitioner: As the leader of the implementation efforts at the NYC Department of Education and then deputy chancellor for early childhood from 2014 through 2021, I was immersed in the details of implementing the early childhood programs described here. Before that, I also spent close to seven years working on economic development policy in the Bloomberg administration and served as a legislative aide in the New York City Council. Those experiences led me to see industrial policy more broadly, to view early childhood policy as a key part of it, and to approach broad policy issues through the perspective of the day-to-day work of implementation.


Josh Wallack

Josh Wallack is currently a leadership in government fellow at the Open Society Foundations, where he is working with cities and counties to develop resources to help implement and expand effective, equitable early care and education programs.

He served as deputy chancellor for early childhood and student enrollment at the New York City Department of Education, where he oversaw implementation of New York City’s early childhood programs, including Pre-K and 3-K for All.

Full Bio

Through these initiatives, New York City now serves over 100,000 children from birth to age five in free, full-day, high-quality early care and education. Josh also supported the Office of School Enrollment, where he led the first significant school integration efforts in decades.

Josh was previously the chief operating officer for the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), where he helped lead projects critical to the city’s economic development agenda. Successes included Applied Sciences NYC, the initiative through which Cornell University and the Technion agreed to build a graduate engineering center on Roosevelt Island in New York City, and the Hunter’s Point South project, which will create 5,000 new units of housing on the Queens waterfront.

1Here, “state” refers to government broadly, in contrast to private enterprise, not to a particular level of government.