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Preschool Matters Today

New York in a Preschool State of Mind


January 21, 2014
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This afternoon, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo presented his budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015, including significant investment in state-funded pre-K. The Governor called for an investment of $1.5 billion over five years, starting with $100 million in its first year up to $500 million in its fifth year. This funding is meant in addition to the $410 million the state already spends on its “Universal” Prekindergarten Program, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name.

Pre-K has become a hot topic in the Empire State.  New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, as we have written before, has made universal pre-K in the Big Apple a key focus of his campaign as well as his first month in office. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded preschool programs, demand far outstrips availability, and he has proposed an increased income tax on those earning over $500,000 to raise the estimated $340 million needed to pay for pre-K for all. An increase in New York City income tax would need to be approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo has stated his support of pre-K but also his opposition to increasing taxes, remaining true to his word today by proposing a plan to build pre-K into the state budget without creating a new tax.

It is easy to see these proposals as an either/or proposition, but the best route for New York’s educational and economic prosperity is both. We applaud Governor Cuomo’s focus on high-quality, full-day universal pre-K and a renewed commitment to providing funding for the program. Implicitly, this recognizes that, to date, the program has undercut quality, provided mostly half-days, and fallen far short of universal in reach. NIEER’s estimate of the cost of a high-quality, full-day program in New York state is just under $10,000 per child. In its first year, the $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund 10,195, or 4 percent, of the state’s 4-year-olds. This would barely chip away at the gap of 50,000 children de Blasio has reported as having no or inadequate access to pre-K.  However, that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend to a full-day existing slots, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.

Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access.  It also would protect the spirit of local control that exists in American education and is one of the key strengths of the American approach to public education. Other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead more quickly, as well.

Governor Cuomo’s proposal was only announced today, and key details remain to be specified. In the ensuing conversations about how to proceed, New York could learn important lessons from the Abbott preschool program in New Jersey, which has built one of the highest quality preschool programs in the nation (for a discussion of the lessons learned from this program, see Steve Barnett’s video lecture as well as recent coverage in Slate and The American Prospect). For pre-K to truly succeed as a system, the state needs to set feasible timelines and research-based quality standards. Programs also need support in meeting those standards, as seen in New Jersey’s support of early childhood educator training programs to create a qualified, highly effective workforce. Pre-K cannot exist in a vacuum, but must be coordinated with child care and Head Start programs in the state. This is already underway in New York’s mixed delivery model. Finally, New York state must commit to what it would actually cost to fully meet their goal of full-day highly effective early education for all with a hard deadline for achieving that goal. NIEER provides estimates of the per-child cost of a high-quality program in its Yearbook. A joint report from the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity focuses on the questions of funding and timing specifically in a New York context. Basing program funds on what can be found in the budget, rather than studying actual costs of providing a quality universal program, is a recipe for underfunding.

It is heartening to see two such high-profile elected leaders competing over who has the “best“ pre-K plan. Particularly as UPK in New York has been underfunded for well over a decade, it is our sincere hope that Cuomo and de Blasio can work together on both state- and city-level initiatives to create a quality, stable program and ensure that all of New York’s children are off to the bright start they deserve. From our perspective, the best option is likely to be implementing both plans–and together they can transform New York into a model for Governors and Mayors throughout the nation who seek to provide the best 21st Century education and brightest future for all young children.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER & CEELO

Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER  & CEELO