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Pre-K expansion estimated to be low in September

James F Clay

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 on March 31, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders touted funding for pre-kindergarten that they said could lead to making it universal in New York state.

Senate Co-leader Jeff Klein was one of its biggest advocates.

“We’re looking forward to having a fully funded pre-K system in the state of New York,” 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. Outside of New York City, 82 percent of schools have no plans to begin or expand pre-kindergarten in the upcoming school year.

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

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 the program at the pace the localities can move the program,” Cuomo said. “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 would 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 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 through 12, let alone 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, with AQE, says 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 is 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 NYSSBA, 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.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.