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Published in Print: September 21, 2005, as New York City Adds Pre-K Slots as State Plan Stalls

New York City Adds Pre-K Slots as State Plan Stalls

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After years of seeing no increase in funding from the legislature for New York state’s universal-prekindergarten program, school leaders in New York City decided that if more 4-year-olds were going to get a chance at an early-childhood education, the district officials would have to do something about it themselves.

Financing for the statewide program, which was passed by the legislature in 1997, was frozen after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center dealt a blow to the state economy. The level of support has lingered around $200 million a year, though it was supposed to reach $500 million annually over a five-year period.

See Also
Read the related story, “Preschool Planning”

Like Georgia’s pre-K program, which is funded by a state lottery, New York’s was intended to serve any 4-year-old, regardless of family income, but state officials used the limited money appropriated for the program to first enroll children from low-income families. Of 677 New York school districts, only 197, or 29 percent, participate.

So, the New York City board of education has stepped in to the breach. It has allocated $6 million to open 1,000 new slots for prekindergartners across the city’s five boroughs. The influx of additional children will fill 43 full-day public school classes and 14 half-day classes.

Superintendents of the city’s community school districts had been requesting the early-childhood enrollment increases.

“That says to me that [local superintendents] got it about what’s important,” said Nancy Kolben, the executive director of Child Care Inc., a child-care and early-childhood resource and referral agency in the city. “And in order to do this in the way that works for children and families, it has to be full-day.”

Developments have occurred in recent months that could significantly push the preschool agenda forward across the state, however.

Proposed Policy

While child-care advocacy organizations have concentrated on trying to get increases in pre-K spending, some proponents, like Ms. Kolben’s group, are also turning to a draft policy statement on early-childhood education released by the New York state board of regents over the summer.

The statement proposes 12 strategies, including prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds in all districts statewide with a continuing emphasis on coordination between schools and community-based providers.

Originally, only 10 percent of the state pre-K programs were required to be housed in community-based centers. Cooperation between school districts and local providers was so strong, though, that more than 60 percent of the children are served by community providers or organizations.

“I believe that our collaboration was the thing that made this so successful in New York,” said Cynthia E. Gallagher, the coordinator of early education and reading initiatives for the state education department.

Though the state grants pay only for a part-day program, many schools and local centers have also patched together other fiscal resources to provide full-day classes.

The board of regents also recommends lowering the compulsory age for school attendance from 6 to 5 and mandating full-day kindergarten, which Ms. Kolben suggested would move education for younger children ahead as well.

The policy also recommends basing financing for state prekindergarten programs on the regular K-12 school aid formula instead of through grants—something early-childhood experts and advocates have been pushing for all along.

“Because early-childhood programs are not currently a mandated component of the public education system, such programs become the most vulnerable during times of fiscal constraint,” the policy says.

The proposed policy is available for public comment until the end of November. The regents will vote on it in December. Ms. Gallagher noted that even if the policy is adopted, many of the changes will require legislative action.

“It’s a bold step, but it’s also an initial step,” Ms. Gallagher said.

In addition to the regents’ recommendations, the Campaign for Fiscal Equity, a coalition that has sued the state to seek changes in how it finances schools in New York City, is becoming another vehicle for expanding preschool services to the city’s children.

In response to the group’s 12-year-old school finance lawsuit, a state trial-court judge in February ordered the state to spend an additional $5.6 billion to provide children in the city with a “sound, basic education.” Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, is appealing the order. ("Winning Ways," Jan. 5, 2005)

Building It In

As a result, such groups as Child Care Inc. and the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, a nonprofit organization in Albany, are pushing for having prekindergarten programs included as part of the state’s response to the lawsuit.

“All these things are happening now that are part of a move to really embed pre-K as a core part of the New York state education system,” Ms. Kolben said, “while continuing to do it in a different delivery system than what you might see in K-12.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Kolben said, it’s still unclear whether the new money from the New York City school system will be added every year.

“Once you build a program, a school is going to fight to keep it,” she said. “What you hope is that it gets built into the core program.”

Vol. 25, Issue 04, Pages 26,28

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