New York Pre-K Program On Chopping Block

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Advocates for early-childhood education across New York state are mobilizing to fight a budget proposal by Gov. George E. Pataki that would wipe out all state funding for universal prekindergarten programs.

Part of the Republican governor's proposed $1.2 billion cut to education, the plan has provoked condemnation from teachers and some lawmakers, who say the move would undermine a program that has many benefits.

The governor has proposed an 8.5 percent cut to elementary and secondary education that would bring the state education budget to $13.4 billion in fiscal 2004. ("N.Y. Governor Proposes Deep Cut in School Aid to Fill Big Budget Gap," Feb. 5, 2003.)

Karen Schimke, the co-director of the Center for Early Care and Education, an Albany-based group that has coordinated a statewide campaign called Winning Beginning New York to rally support for the program, said the cuts would leave some 60,000 children without pre-K programs and 6,000 teachers and teacher aides without jobs.

The burden of those cuts, she said, would fall especially hard on low-income families.

Ms. Schimke has testified before state lawmakers that Gov. Pataki's proposed education budget is an "assault" on the state education system. "This isn't the first time we have had concerns that universal pre-K wouldn't continue," she said in an interview. "There are parents all over New York who are counting on this program."

Ms. Schimke said the Winning Beginning New York campaign has sent 40,000 signatures to the governor from parents, teachers, and others who want to save the program, and 60,000 more are on the way.

In 1997, Gov. Pataki supported universal-prekindergarten legislation pushed by Speaker of the Assembly Sheldon Silver, a Democrat. But as New York's economy went into a tailspin after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks, state money for the program, which was supposed to increase to $500 million by this year, was frozen at $200 million during 2001 and 2002.

Across New York, a state with more than 700 school districts, 190 districts have state-financed pre-K initiatives.

Fighting to Survive

In addition to eliminating the prekindergarten program, Gov. Pataki's proposal would cut a program to reduce class sizes in the early grades, end efforts to expand full-day kindergarten, and reduce by $7 million an experimental pre-K program now funded at $50 million.

For Linda Coleman-Nichols, the director of magnet schools and early-childhood programs in the 9,000-student Utica school district, the possibility of those cuts leaves her contemplating a bleak future.

Utica has 360 4-year olds in pre-K programs, housed mainly in six community agencies.

"This would devastate our program," Ms. Coleman-Nichols said. "We have had the program for five years, and we have transitioned from day care to really having an early-learning program.

"We're really seeing results," she continued. "Kindergarten teachers tell us that kids are coming in better prepared."

If the cuts pass, Ms. Coleman-Nichols vows that she will try to save as much of the pre-K initiative as she can.

"I just can't sit by and lose these programs that are so badly needed by children and families," she said. "We'll try to keep something afloat, but at this point I don't have a dime. I'm begging and bargaining."

'Fiscal Crisis'

Gov. Pataki justified his proposed education cuts to New York reporters last month.

"We have made record investments in public education in general, and in pre-K specifically. No other administration has ever come close to the record investments we have made," he was quoted as saying.

"Now we are going to have to pause and deal with the fiscal crisis of this state without hurting the economic prospects of this state," Mr. Pataki said. "The most important thing is to make sure we create jobs, create opportunities, expand the economy, because that's what created the resources that allowed us to make these record investments in schools and in health care and in pre-K."

New York, with a state budget of $90 billion, currently projects a $11.5 billion shortfall over the next two years.

At least one other state is also considering eliminating state funding for its programs for 4-year-olds. In Wisconsin, a legislative task force report recommends ending that state's support for a kindergarten program for 4-year-olds because of budget concerns.

New York Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Democrat who chairs the education committee in the legislature's lower house, said he was disappointed but not surprised by Gov. Pataki's proposal.

"The governor, even in flush years, has sought to cut back and renege on his commitment to pre-K education," he contended.

Mr. Sanders added that of the proposed budget cuts for education, the pre-K plan was drawing the most reaction from lawmakers because of the near-unanimous agreement that the program is an important investment.

"The first money that must be restored is prekindergarten," Mr. Sanders said. "There will not be a budget agreement without the restoration of pre-K. ... Politically and substantively, it's not a good thing to be going after 4-year-olds."

Vol. 22, Issue 30, Pages 22, 26

Published in Print: April 9, 2003, as New York Pre-K Program On Chopping Block
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