W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors professor and director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University.
In 1997, the politicians in Albany promised every child in New York a better opportunity for school success by creating a statewide universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) program. More than 15 years later, fewer than half of the state’s 4-year-olds receive full-day pre-k, and the percentage served actually has fallen since 2010 to just 43 percent.
That puts New York well behind other states that claim to provide UPK, like Florida and Oklahoma, and even some states that do not, like Vermont and Texas. Worse yet, state funding per child in UPK hit its lowest level in a decade in 2012, when adjusted for inflation.
This funding is woefully inadequate for an effective pre-k program. That means that Albany has expanded enrollment even to this limited level by putting quality, and results, at risk. Clearly, state officials have not kept faith with the state’s young children when it comes to actually paying for their promises.
During Wednesday’s budget address, we heard Gov. Andrew Cuomo make a renewed promise to provide high-quality UPK in New York State, with the goal of helping the program move towards the “universal” part of its name. His budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2015 calls for an investment of $1.5 billion in statewide pre-k over five years, starting with $100 million in the first year and pledging to scale up funding over five years.
There are key differences between this plan and that of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who has made universal pre-K and expanded after-school programs the signature issue of his administration, namely the level of funding and security of the revenue source. De Blasio has noted that while many New York City children are served in publicly funded pre-school 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 New York City children.
The fact that pre-k has become such a hot topic in the Empire State is incredibly promising. No single reform could do more to improve education than ensuring that every child has access to a good pre-school education. A large body of research demonstrates that good pre-k programs have substantial, persistent positive impacts on children and the communities they live in, and that these impacts are especially important for the most disadvantaged.
A real investment in these programs is sorely needed in New York, and when it comes to the two proposals on the table, the numbers are clear. In its first year, Cuomo’s proposed $100 million expansion of the UPK program could fully fund only about 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 in New York City alone. And that assumes that nothing is done to raise quality or extend existing slots to full-day, which could more than consume the entire $100 million without serving any new children.
We know from experience that 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. If the legislature and governor refuse to allow New York City to dedicate a funding source, the city could find money for pre-k drying up yet again.
Giving New York City the autonomy to raise its own taxes in order to invest in educating its children, as de Blasio has proposed, would ensure real progress toward raising quality and providing a full day, while increasing access. It also would protect the spirit of local control, one of the strengths of the American approach to public education, as other cities and towns in the state may choose to move ahead quickly as well.
Albany should put UPK in the state school funding formula backed by a revenue stream to ensure that it is adequately funded for each child and not subject to annual dilution through underfunding.
To truly fulfill the promise of universal pre-k, Albany should allow de Blasio to dedicate a small tax increase to UPK for five years and put it up for a renewal vote at that time. Such an approach would leave New Yorkers paying lower taxes in the long-run, as the first wave of better educated, more productive citizens move into higher education and the workforce.