Pataki's Budget Disappoints Early-Childhood Advocates
Gov. George E. Pataki's plan to change the way New York pays for its new prekindergarten initiative has left early-childhood-education advocates worried about his commitment to the program.
Just last year, the Republican governor boasted of his plans to expand the state's "experimental" pre-K program to serve children statewide.
"Let's declare, once and for all, what we all know to be the case: Pre-K works," he said during his 1998 State of the State Address.
But Mr. Pataki's proposed budget for fiscal 2000, which he introduced late last month, would replace money earmarked for the prekindergarten program and related initiatives--such as class-size reduction in the early grades and full-day kindergarten--with a $200 million block grant.
His action has since sparked an emergency campaign to save the pre-K program.
"I don't know what he's thinking," said Anne Mitchell, an early-childhood-education consultant based in Climax, N.Y. "It's too bad that we have to spend all this energy on something that we know works."
Part of a broad package of education initiatives the New York legislature passed in 1997, the program was intended to give universal access to pre-K services to all of the state's 4-year-olds by 2002. The state had planned to spend roughly $500 million over four years to meet the goal.
Preparing for More
The program now serves close to 19,000 children in 66 districts statewide, and about 14,000 children in New York City alone. Services are provided by public schools and a mix of community-based agencies and child-care providers.
The city was preparing to serve more than 28,000 children by next fall, said Maria Benejan, the director of the project on universal prekindergarten at Bank Street College of Education, a private college in New York City that specializes in training early-childhood educators.
"My guess is that we probably will not meet our target," she said.
Under the governor's 1998 plan, the pre-K program would have received $100 million statewide in fiscal 2000.
But under his block-grant plan this year, districts could use their share of the $200 million any way they chose.
The intent of the shift is to give local districts more flexibility--something they've been requesting for years, said Joe Conway, a spokesman for the governor's budget office.
"We think this is a very positive step forward," he said, adding that "if a school district wants to spend every penny on prekindergarten, they can."
But a block grant would also put several education programs in competition with each other for money, said Augusta Souza Kappner, the president of Bank Street College and a member of the New York City school board's pre-K advisory board. "It makes it not a universal program," she said.
And, in fact, the amount of the block grant would not stretch far enough to fully pay for the initiatives, said Democratic Assemblyman Steven Sanders, who chairs the education committee in the legislature's lower house. He added that since the governor is only proposing a total increase in education spending of $154 million, or 1.3 percent from the current year, districts may even need to use the money to cover their regular operating expenses. By comparison, last year, lawmakers passed a record-breaking increase of $847 million.
"The Assembly majority will mightily resist these proposals that the governor has made," Mr. Sanders said last week. "Our position is that this budget will not be passed until we restore the original intent of the pre-K program."
The governor's budget plan, however, is not the only pre-K proposal before the legislature. The New York state board of regents has also made its requests, including a $41 million increase in state aid for the pre-K program for the 1999-2000 school year. Added to the $67 million now being spent on the program, that amount would allow the program to continue growing.
But the state needs about $120 million to serve the 44,000 children throughout the state it originally planned to reach next fall, said Cynthia Gallagher, the supervisor of the state education department's division of child, family, and community services.
Not a Trend
While advocates for early-childhood education are concerned about the potential cuts in New York, experts say Gov. Pataki's plan does not signal that support for prekindergarten and other early-learning programs is dwindling nationwide.
"Generally, we're not seeing cutbacks in pre-K spending," said Scott Groginsky, a policy specialist with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures' children and families program. Instead, many states are increasing spending in that area.
Georgia's new Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, for example, wants to continue to expand the state's lottery-financed pre-K program, and has proposed spending $6.7 million to serve 1,500 more children during the next school year. About 61,000 children are in the program now.
And in North Carolina, Democratic Gov. James B. Hunt Jr.'s education plan includes adding more preschool programs for poor children.
Some observers have suggested that Gov. Pataki's plan to give local districts more control over the New York program is part of a strategy to position himself for a bid for the gop presidential nomination next year.
In a letter to early-childhood professionals in the state, Ms. Kappner urged them to get in touch with the governor and plead with him to change his mind.
But the advocates are not stopping there. They are also taking their concerns to the legislature, where they feel support for the program is stronger.
"We're still putting the pressure on," Ms. Benejan said. "This is not a done deal."
Vol. 18, Issue 24, Pages 15,19