“It is really a frightening prospect,” he said.
In the weeks since the mayor revealed his proposal, questions about whether the new program can succeed have been raised by preschool providers, state legislators and critics who say he is setting a lofty and politically popular goal that he has no realistic plan to achieve.
In addition to hiring staff, the expansion to 3-year-olds would require hundreds of classrooms, including some in the most crowded — and expensive — parts of the city. Most critical, to actually make the program universal, Mr. de Blasio needs to secure $700 million in state and federal funding. On its own, the administration has said, the city can fund the program in only eight of its 32 school districts. It is starting with a pilot program this fall in just two districts, in the South Bronx and the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Some state legislators have said that they are not prepared to pay for preschool for 3-year-olds in New York City until there is free prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds in the rest of the state. Currently, according to the State Education Department, roughly a third of New York’s 4-year-olds do not have access to public prekindergarten.
“I respect the mayor and his plan, but I would say that we have a lot of work to do statewide first,” State Assemblyman Kenneth P. Zebrowski, a Democrat from Rockland County, said in an interview. He noted that Rockland County had enough prekindergarten seats to serve only about half of its 4-year-olds.
Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for Mr. de Blasio, said that while there were hurdles, “The science is clear that the earlier we reach our youngest children, the better chance they have to succeed later in life.” She added that there were “still important program development discussions to be had, but the mayor refuses to wait.”
New York City’s publicly financed early education system is complex and fragmented. Mr. de Blasio’s universal prekindergarten program is free and serves all 4-year-olds, regardless of family income, in schools and community-based organizations. These programs run six hours and 20 minutes daily and operate only when school is in session.
Then there are early education centers that specifically serve low-income families through the city’s EarlyLearn program. They mostly take children between the ages of 2 and 4, and, because they are intended to provide child care to working parents, are open eight to 10 hours a day and don’t close during school holidays. The program is free to the poorest families; others pay sliding-scale rates based on their incomes. Mr. Matison’s organization, the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society, is an EarlyLearn provider.
Prekindergarten teachers in city schools or in centers directly run by the Education Department belong to the United Federation of Teachers union. They earn salaries that start at $54,000 and max out, after 22 years, at $113,372.
Those who teach in EarlyLearn programs belong to a different union, District Council 1707. These teachers went without a raise for nine years, until a new contract was signed last fall. Under the new contract, the salaries of certified teachers in EarlyLearn programs start at $40,456 and top out at $51,700.
David Nocenti, the executive director of Union Settlement, which serves roughly 400 children through EarlyLearn in seven centers in East Harlem, said that of 29 classrooms, he currently had five vacancies for certified teachers as well as one vacancy for a center director. He said that the previous center director had left to earn a higher salary teaching in the Education Department, as had most of the teachers he was looking to replace.
“Unless the mayor’s proposal includes funding to eliminate the disparate treatment of nonprofit teaching staff, all of us will lose the teachers that we currently have,” Mr. Nocenti said, “and the entire structure’s going to collapse, period.”
Shariffa Martinez, 40, went to work for the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society in 2011 teaching 2-year-olds and then 4-year-olds. She said she loved it. Still, three years later, when Ms. Martinez had an opportunity to teach kindergarten in a city school, she jumped at it. It was partly the salary difference, which she said was close to $30,000. But it was also the opportunity to spend summer and other school vacations with her son, now 5.
“I worked all year-round with just 15 days of vacation,” Ms. Martinez said of her job at the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society. “I wouldn’t go back to where I have less time with my personal family.”
Ana Aguirre, the executive director of United Community Centers, which runs a center serving 114 children in East New York, Brooklyn, said that having such frequent vacancies inevitably took a toll on her program’s quality.
“Your energy is constantly in replacing certified teachers,” she said.
Some early childhood center directors were also upset that they had not been consulted about the program, or even notified that its announcement was coming before the morning of Mr. de Blasio’s news conference.
Josh Wallack, a deputy chancellor for strategy and policy at the city’s Education Department, said that the department had helped early childhood centers with recruitment and professional development and would continue to do so.
“We recognize that there are challenges with an implementation like this, but we’ve done it before with pre-K, and we are going to collaborate with all the providers to get this done,” Mr. Wallack said. “They’re essential partners here.”
Some early childhood education advocates who support the mayor’s “3-K for All” initiative agreed that the salary gap was a serious issue, but said they expected that the expansion would create pressure to resolve it.
“In my view,” said Jennifer March, the executive director of the nonprofit Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, “it’s a real opportunity to tackle all those challenging problems.”