An advocacy group for early-childhood education launched a public-awareness campaign last week to get New York state’s stagnant Universal Prekindergarten program back on track.
“We want to try to restart the stalled process,” said Karen Schimke, a co-director of the Center for Early Care and Education, the organization running the Winning Beginning NY campaign.
The center, established in 1999, is a project of Child Care Inc., a New York City-based child-care resource and referral agency, and the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, an Albany think tank that focuses on health and human services.
The campaign will push for a $50 million increase in funding for the 2004 fiscal year and work to ensure that pre-K dollars are spent only on pre-K. Currently, districts that qualify for the funds can choose to spend them on other needs.
Ms. Schimke said she would like to see a change in the state education financing formula that would keep prekindergarten from being such an easy target.
By this school year, New York’s Universal Prekindergarten program was supposed to be offered statewide, and annual funding for the program was to have reached $500 million.
But because the state needed money to recover from the 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City, funding for the prekindergarten effort has been frozen at roughly $200 million for two fiscal years, leaving thousands of 4-year-olds without access to the program.
Districts Left Out
“We didn’t get slashed, but we didn’t get growth,” said Cynthia E. Gallagher, the coordinator of early-childhood programs for the state education department. “All resources were heading to the city.”
Of New York’s 680 public school districts, 190 currently provide the prekindergarten program. However, under the phase-in process used by the state—which gave priority to districts serving the neediest children—only 224 districts have been eligible so far.
According to data that the center released at an Albany press conference last week, prekindergarten is not being offered in many rural and suburban districts that have high percentages of 4th graders reading below grade level.
Those children are “falling into a reading-achievement gap that could be closed with full availability of state-funded prekindergarten,” the group’s press release says.
However, Ms. Gallagher said trends show that reading scores have been rising, and that community leaders have begun to emphasize early-childhood education even if they don’t offer the prekindergarten program.
In the 2003-04 school year, the first group of children that participated in the state preschool program will be in 4th grade, allowing the state to examine through test scores whether the program is having a direct effect on achievement.