Pre-K expansion expected to be low in September

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June 26, 2014

Fewer than 20 percent of school districts outside of New York City have expressed interest in expanding their pre-kindergarten programs. Critics say that falls far short of the goals of a program billed in the state budget as universal pre-K.

When the state budget was approved back on March 31, Governor Cuomo and legislative leaders touted funding for pre-kindergarten that they said could lead to universal pre-K in New York.

Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein was one of the biggest advocates.

“We’re looking forward to having a fully funded pre-K system in the state of New York,” Senator Klein said in late March.

New York City received $300 million, the amount Mayor bill de Blasio estimated was needed to offer pre-kindergarten to every child whose parent wanted it. But just $40 million was allocated to schools in the rest of the state.

The results, says a school funding advocacy group, were predictable. 82 percent of schools not in New York City have no plans to begin or expand pre kindergarten in the upcoming school year.

“It’s far from universal,” said Billy Easton of the Alliance for a Quality Education, or AQE. “It’s a small amount of money compared to the need that’s out there and the desire that’s out there.”

Governor Cuomo, at the time of the budget agreement, offered a caveat. He said lawmakers did not plan for every school to immediately enact full day pre kindergarten.

“We have the funding to move program at the pace the localities can move the program,” said Cuomo. “It’s going to be a question of how quickly we can  operationalize the program.”

Cuomo says the rules for the content of the pre-K classes have also become stricter.

“We don’t want  babysitting programs,” Cuomo said.

The governor said at the time he’d be “delighted” if more schools needed the money for pre-K sooner.

The New York State School Boards Association’s Tim Kremer says a slower start up of pre-K might not be a bad thing.

“I’d rather start high with some high quality programs, see how they work, what lessons can be learned from those,” said Kremer “And then expand the program after that.”

Kremer says he takes the governor “at his word “that the funding will be there.

But he says schools have complained that the program has too many obstacles. It’s awarded on the basis of competitive grants and he says many schools don’t have enough staff or employees skilled in grant writing to properly apply.

“A lot of school districts say ‘hey, we’re having enough trouble funding K-12, let along starting a new UPK’,” Kremer said.

School districts that want to start a pre-K program must fund it themselves, first, then get reimbursed by the state for the costs. Easton said other states that really wanted to provide access to pre-K, were willing to pay for it.

“If it really was the goal to make pre-K universal, the way to do it so for the state to provide the money to the districts up front,” Easton said.

State Education Commissioner John King estimates it would cost around $1.5 billion to fully fund pre-K in all of New York.

Kremer, with the School Boards Association, says 123 school districts have expressed interest in expanding or starting pre-K programs. But it’s expected the number that actually follow through by next September will be much smaller.