Plans for ‘Universal’ Preschool Gain Ground in New York State

By Linda Jacobson — October 25, 2000 7 min read

With the idea of universal preschool slowly gaining more attention in the United States, one state has shown in a relatively short amount of time how to bring the public school system and providers of early-childhood education together to give more 4-year-olds educational opportunities.

In just three years, New York has built a voluntary prekindergarten program that is expected to serve more than 52,000 children in 162 school districts this year. And leaders there seem to have gathered enough political support to keep the future of the program secure.

“We are beyond excited about the way this has played out across the state,” said Cynthia E. Gallagher, who heads the state education department’s coordination team for early-childhood education.

Unlike Georgia’s pre-K program, which is supported by a state lottery, financing for New York’s program is handled as a regular part of the annual budget process.

Funding for the program this year stands at $225 million; it is expected to reach a peak of $500 million next year and remain at that level, as the legislation was written.

What Is Universal?

Part of a 1997 education bill that also included full-day kindergarten and class-size reductions, the pre-K initiative in New York state was intended to give 4-year-olds universal access to preschool by the 2001-02 school year.

But the term “universal” preschool means different things to different people.

In New York, it means that any school district can apply for funding to offer the program, as long as the district shows it can meet the standards set by the state. According to the law, the program will be fully implemented next year, meaning that any 4-year-old will be eligible to attend, if his or her district offers the program.

During the phase-in period, however, priority has been given to “high needs” districts, and preference goes to low-income children. Remaining slots are filled by a lottery. Ms. Gallagher estimates that the state has about 200,000 4-year- olds, so the program is now serving about a fourth of them.

Denise M. Gomber, the director of early-childhood services for the Ithaca school district in upstate New York, said she believes the program is beginning to reach more lower-middle-class families—those who might not qualify for programs that serve children in poverty, but who can’t afford to send their children to private preschools or child-care centers.

“There is a whole community of children and families that I felt we weren’t getting to because of fiscal reasons,” Ms. Gomber said. “This has allowed us to get to families who didn’t have options.”

Families do not pay to enroll their children in the state- financed pre-K program in New York. Universal programs elsewhere, though, are not always free to parents.

In January, the 430,000-student Chicago school system plans to begin offering a tuition- based preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds. Parents will pay $5,700 for 48 weeks of the full-day program. In each class, five slots will be set aside for parents who can’t afford the standard tuition and need to pay on a sliding-fee scale.

Only Georgia’s lottery-financed prekindergarten program fits what might commonly be considered universal. It’s open to practically any family that wants it, anywhere in the state. More than 62,000 children are enrolled this year.

States aren’t the only place where universal access to preschool is being discussed. The idea is also getting play in this year’s presidential campaign.

Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee, has embraced the concept and says that, if he is elected, he wants to pledge $50 billion in federal aid over 10 years to make preschool more widely available to 3- and 4-year-olds. The details of his proposal are sketchy, however.

The early-childhood-education agenda of the Republican nominee, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, centers instead on turning the Head Start preschool program for disadvantaged youngsters into more of an early-learning and early-reading program.

Emphasis on Collaboration

Experts generally agree that offering prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds doesn’t have to mean that public school systems take charge, and that traditional preschool and child-care providers are squeezed out of the picture—and possibly put out of business.

Instead, many states that pay for pre-K programs recommend or even require that school districts collaborate with their local early-childhood-education providers to offer the program.

Under New York’s law, at least 10 percent of a district’s prekindergarten funding must be contracted out to community agencies. But, as it has turned out, more than half the funding in New York has been contracted out to local providers.

In New York City, where roughly 38,000 children are enrolled in the pre-K program, more than 60 percent of the funding goes under contract to providers outside the public schools.

“Many of us in the public schools had to recognize that there is a quality program down the street,” said Eleanor Greig Ukoli, the director of the office of early- childhood education for the New York City board of education.

Since the 1.1 million-student district is trying to implement class-size reduction in the primary grades—and both programs require additional classrooms—city school officials are grateful for the additional space the community-based providers can offer.

Anne Mitchell, an early-childhood-education consultant in Climax, N.Y., said she believes one reason the implementation of the program in New York state has been relatively smooth is the law’s requirement that each district with a pre-K program form an advisory board. Those groups determine the needs within their communities and focus on ways of improving the program.

Anne Mitchell

“When you have such a thing, you guard against just slapping down a program,” Ms. Mitchell said.

And according to an update she wrote on the program for an upcoming book on early- childhood education, members of the child-care and preschool community have been eager to serve on the advisory boards.

“There are much better relationships between schools and other organizations, and that’s what was supposed to be happening,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Concerns About the Future

While support for the universal pre-K program in New York is strong, both state and district officials say there are issues surrounding prekindergarten that, if not addressed, could jeopardize the long-term success of the program. Money tops the list.

While the current funding level is in line with what the legislature promised, surveys have shown that many local school administrators believe it’s not enough money to run high-quality programs. Delays in the final adoption of state budgets—often months past the start of the state’s fiscal year on April 1—also put districts in an awkward spot.

In her update, Ms. Mitchell wrote that districts don’t know whether to “go ahead and commit to enrollment, hiring, and contracts without knowing what funds are appropriated or wait until the budget passes and risk not being able to implement on time, angering the community.”

Finding qualified teachers for the program at a time when teacher shortages are common is another challenge. The law requires those who teach in the program to be certified, but it also gave community-based providers until the 2001-02 school year to meet that requirement. That provision recognized that many child-care centers don’t have certified teachers and would need extra time for staff members to earn their credentials.

Though some scholarships for instructors are available, it’s also possible, Ms. Gallagher said, that the deadline will need to be extended.

Some New Yorkers also wonder just how useful the program— which runs for only 21/2 hours a day during the school year—is to working parents.

In some districts, administrators have been able to patch together full-day programs by working with local child-care providers. But that is not always the case, and Ms. Gallagher said the full-day, full-year issue might need more attention from the legislature.

Meanwhile, some educators say the program is already having an impact on children.

“I think the significant difference has been in the area of language and literacy,” Ms. Gomber of the Ithaca schools said. “They are excited about books and print, and that transfers to early math and early science.”

Adapting the Standards

What children should be learning in prekindergarten is also receiving a lot of consideration in states that are making such programs more widely available.

Instead of using a separate curriculum or giving districts a choice of which concepts to teach, New York has adapted its K-3 curriculum guidelines for children in pre-K.

The same process was recently completed in California, where establishing a half-day universal preschool program for all 3- and 4-year-olds has been a goal of state schools Superintendent Delaine Eastin. A new document by the California education department, called “Prekindergarten Learning and Development Guidelines,” links classroom activities and skills expected of preschoolers to academic-content standards in kindergarten.

Those efforts, Ms. Gallagher said, are important steps toward achieving a goal shared by many early-childhood educators: making preschool programs part of the public education system.

“I think universal pre- K is pushing the envelope in education,” she said. “I wish it wasn’t even called pre-K, because you don’t call 1st grade pre-2.”

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