Pre-K: Let state, city plans vie
Somehow, despite ongoing controversies over the Common Core, standardized testing, teacher evaluations and school funding, universal pre-kindergarten has become the educational issue of the moment.
Prior to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address, I would not have predicted that a debate over how to fund universal pre-kindergarten would be raging throughout the land. Nor did I foresee universal pre-K’s rapid ascent to the top of the state’s list of educational priorities.
Driving the sudden interest is New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who vowed that, if elected, he would increase taxes on city residents earning more than $500,000 to pay for universal pre-K for 74,000 eligible 4-year-olds. He estimates that his pre-K plan would cost $340 million annually over the next five years, for a total of $1.7 billion.
Not to be outdone, Cuomo used his address to express support for making universal pre-kindergarten available to all of New York’s students. But the governor believes pre-K can be funded without new taxes, and would commit $1.5 billion, over five years, to universal pre-K for the state’s 225,000 eligible students.
Obviously, Cuomo’s program would cost a lot less than de Blasio’s, which makes me wonder: Is the governor low-balling voters? Or is de Blasio asking for too much? Probably the former. A recent report from the nonpartisan watchdog group the Citizens Budget Commission estimated that statewide pre-K would cost $1.3 billion annually.
Now, I like the idea of pre-kindergarten.
I attended a pre-school called The House at Pooh Corner, and had a great time. I’m not really sure what I learned there, as I was just 4 years old at the time, but I got to ride a van and fingerpaint and play with kids my own age. And because I had active, engaged parents who read to me and taught me to count, I doubt that the quality of my pre-K schooling mattered all that much in the long run.
But the research suggests that not all pre-schools are created equal, and that if prekindergarten is to increase student achievement over the long run, it must be high quality — and high-quality programs tend to be more expensive.
And while a handful of major studies shows that pre-K helps disadvantaged children, the benefits for middle-class children are far from clear. Perhaps pre-K can make a real difference for low-income children whose parents can’t or won’t provide basic enrichment at home, but only has a minimal impact on children with better educated, middle-class parents.
The disagreement over how to fund pre-K has exposed upstate-downstate tensions.
Cuomo has said that funding pre-K through local taxes, as de Blasio wants to do, is unfair to upstate children. “Let the state pay,” the governor said last week. “Let the state distribute. … Do I believe the wealth in New York City should be used just for New York City? No. I don’t believe the wealth in Nassau should be used just
for Nassau. That would place the poorer communities at a disadvantage, and I don’t want to do that.”
Meanwhile, de Blasio has argued that New York City is home to some of the poorest children in America, angering some upstate politicians who argued that every student in New York deserves the same opportunity to learn and succeed.
I, for one, think New York City should be allowed to go its own way.
For one thing, permitting New York to impose its own tax and fund its own pre-K will free up more money for universal pre-K upstate. And since Cuomo’s funding proposal falls far short of the estimated cost of providing pre-K to all of New York’s children, upstate is going to need all the pre-K funding it can get.
In addition, letting New York City do its own thing will allow voters and elected officials to assess whose funding mechanism and pre-K program is better — Cuomo’s or de Blasio’s. Given the state’s spotty track record on implementing big-ticket educational initiatives, I don’t know why anyone would assume the state has the best approach. And since our elected officials are always telling us that competition produces better outcomes for everyone, well, let’s have a pre-K face-off. We can study the results and adopt best practices throughout the state.
After spending much of the day looking at pre-K research, I’ve come to the conclusion that universal pre-K sounds great, but that we don’t know very much about how to build an effective program. Some states — New Jersey, Oklahoma — appear to have done a better job than others, but for every study and article I saw proclaiming success, I saw another one that threw the upbeat findings into doubt.
What everyone seems to agree on, though, is that if you want pre-K to benefit kids long-term, you have to be willing to spend a lot of money.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.