When it comes to momentum, 2014 proposals to expand access to high-quality pre-K are picking up right where things left off last year. For example, last week, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley (D) proposed expanding the state’s pre-K program with an eye to making it universally available to 4-year-olds by 2018. But perhaps the most interesting pre-K political battle is unfolding just up the road in New York.

Just-elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) made universal pre-K a signature issue during his 2013 campaign. On the heels of his resounding victory, commentators wondered if de Blasio would be able to get approval for his proposed tax increases in Albany (the state must sign off on increases in NYC’s tax rates).

And that’s more or less where the debate left off—until last week. On Wednesday,Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) echoed de Blasio on universal pre-K (and proposed expanding the idea to the entire state!), but insisted that it could be done while cutting taxes. Since neither official has offered details, it’s hard to handicap the coming debate, but it’s encouraging to see support for pre-K investments growing (Joe Lhota, de Blasio’s Republican opponent in last fall’s election, also supported universal pre-K).

With so much enthusiasm for increasing access to high-quality pre-K, early education advocates need to prepare to shift gears. For years, many have focused their energy on getting policymakers to accept the importance of supporting early childhood development. Now, as that message is becoming mainstream, it’s critical that new investments in this space are effective. Nothing dulls political momentum so much as unfulfilled promises.

Or, as I put it in a column in the New York Daily News today,

While pre-K can make a huge difference, the distance between its promise and its practice is wider than most politicians, de Blasio and Cuomo included, acknowledge. We know what works — but what works isn’t always immediately possible or politically expedient.

If new pre-K programs fall short of their (appropriately) high expectations, it would seriously undercut any future efforts. While the need for better early education options is urgent in many communities, that’s no excuse for rushing past good design and strong implementation of new programs.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Conor Williams

Conor Williams is a Senior Researcher in the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation. Find him on Twitter: @ConorPWilliams