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Universal pre-K is effective, but is it too expensive?

Sunday, April 6, 2014
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Few educators will deny that the younger we begin educating our kids, the better the chances they’ll have at succeeding in school.

That, in fact, is the justification behind the state’s new venture into the field of universal pre-kindergarten education.

In response to a question from The Gazette during a conference call Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the $340 million allocated in the budget for pre-kindergarten programs represented seed money for a full-blown effort to institute them statewide. A total state expenditure of $1.5 billion for pre-K is planned over the next five years, he said.

“I think we’re on the cusp of major education reform,” Cuomo said, calling universal pre-K a “gift to future generations. ...This is just the first step.”

But given the state’s still-precarious fiscal position with regard to business development and high taxes, we wonder whether the high cost will ultimately be justified by the outcome, and whether the money spent on pre-K programs could better be spent on existing early education programs, improving the state’s struggling K-12 system, other non-education needs like infrastructure repair, or put back into the budget to rein in taxes.

High taxes

A report released Wednesday by the Washington-based Tax Foundation found that New Yorkers pay 12.6 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the highest level in the country. That designation has been true for years, and it comes as no surprise to state residents who own property, have jobs, put gas in their cars, buy groceries or heat their homes.

Pre-K will add to that burden. And it doesn’t come cheap.

Based on the experiences in other states that have pre-K to some degree, program costs can run from about $4,500 to $10,000 per student. A legitimate pre-K program requires college-trained educators, not $5-an-hour babysitters. New York City’s aggressive plan to have all of the city’s 73,250 4-year-olds in preschool by 2016 will cost an estimated $750 million per year, according to city officials.

And the city gets the lion’s share of the $340 million allocated in this year’s state budget. Only $40 million is available to upstate districts, on a competitive basis. (Rather than let the city’s mayor pay for his program through a tax on the wealthy, the Legislature opted to spread the cost to all New Yorkers.)

In addition to the first-time allocation for pre-K, the state budget includes a November ballot proposition to borrow $2 billion, which will be used for technology and pre-K classrooms.

Already, the price tag is getting bigger. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Is the state ready to invest in the salaries, health benefits and pensions of another layer of public employees? If statewide universal pre-K comes to fruition, where will they put all the kids? Elementary schools are closing around the state because of tight budgets. Before the boost in state aid, Schenectady’s superintendent was considering cutting kindergarten. Many school buildings, especially in the inner cities, are already overcrowded and in need of structural repairs. Taxpayers will have to pay for additional bus transportation, materials and aides.

Worth the price?

OK, so it’s going to be expensive. But will it be worth it?

Pre-K education helps children — especially low-income and minority children — catch up to their more affluent peers, according to respected studies like those done by the High/Scope Perry and Chicago Child-Parent Centers and the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten Cohort. The fact that not all children benefit equally raises the question of whether state taxpayers should be providing this extra level of education to families that either can afford pre-K on their own or whose children might not need it.

There’s less clear evidence to demonstrate how long the benefit of pre-K lasts. Some studies track improvements through the higher grades and into adulthood, while others say the benefit becomes negligible as kids approach the middle-school years. That’s a consideration when looking at how much to invest.

If there is long-term value beyond kindergarten, then that could help offset the cost of pre-K programs by reducing the need for intervention programs in the later grades. Pre-K could actually save taxpayers money if the beneficiaries of it don’t need extra services to keep them in school or to keep up with their studies.

If we can help our children succeed in school, we should. But are there other effective, less costly alternatives to full-blown, statewide pre-K?

Head start model

For the past 50 years, the nation has had a federal Head Start program for children from low-income families. It’s still going strong, serving more than 830,000 children nationwide through grants to school districts and other education providers.

Congress this year bumped up Head Start funding to $8.6 billion. It also has demanded more of the people teaching in the program. Since 2011, all Head Start lead teachers have had to have an associate’s degree in early childhood or a related field, and since 2013, half the positions required at least a bachelor’s degree in early childhood.

Could Head Start be expanded to encompass the goals of pre-K? Could preschool education programs be a hybrid of Head Start and public pre-K? In some places, pre-K is provided in non-public-school settings. Would more state grants supplementing existing community-based programs be cheaper than going all-in on a full taxpayer-supported program? Could vouchers be provided to low-income families to enroll their children in pre-K programs? President Obama has been trying to get Congress to pass a plan where the federal government partners with states and cities on pre-K. There could be an opportunity there to offset the costs. We’re sure there are other potential alternatives available.

In a perfect world, universal pre-kindergarten would be one of the state’s top priorities.

But given the state’s fiscal challenges and the cost of pre-K education, state leaders need to step back before they go any further and make sure it’s truly the best use of our precious state tax dollars.

 
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