Early Childhood

Cities Seize Momentum on Pre-K Expansion

By Christina A. Samuels — January 13, 2014 6 min read
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New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create a universal preschool program for the city’s 4-year-olds—through a tax on the city’s highest earners—is the latest example of city leaders around the country taking early-childhood education into their own hands, sometimes well in advance of state or federal officials.

In 2012, San Antonio residents approved a sales tax of an eighth of a cent to pay for expanded preschool to serve 3,700 4-year-olds, a program that got underway this school year. The Seattle City Council voted last year in support of a preschool program to serve 3- and 4-year olds and has started a feasibility study. Those efforts join older city-run preschool programs in cities such as Boston, Denver, and San Francisco.

“You don’t find a lot of people arguing about the value of full-day pre-K,” said Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, at a Jan. 6 press conference where he was joined by city labor leaders who support the plan. “This is an area where there’s extraordinary consensus that yes, this is something that really works.”

But his plan depends on Albany lawmakers granting the mayor the authority to increase taxes on the approximately 40,000 city residents who earn more than $500,000 a year. If implemented, the tax hike would funnel about $340 million over five years to preschool and $190 million over the same time period for after-school programs aimed at middle school students.

Hurdles Ahead

Granting Mr. de Blasio the five-year taxing authority is by no means a sure thing. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who is also a Democrat and up for re-election this year, made tax relief a rallying cry in his Jan. 8 State of the State address to legislators. And state Senate Republicans argue that additional taxes aren’t the right mechanism to address the issue.

Taking the Reins

New York City is the most recent example of a municipality seizing the momentum on early education. In many cases, cities around the country are offering programs that are available to more students than what state funding would allow. Prominent initiatives include:

New York City: Mayor Bill de Blasio proposes a tax increase on residents earning more than $500,000 a year. The increase is expected to provide about $530 million over five years.

San Antonio: City residents approve a sales tax that will pay for preschool for 22,400 4-year-olds over an eight-year period. The tax is expected to produce about $32 million a year, and the state will contribute an additional $5 million.

Seattle: The City Council votes in favor of creating a universal, voluntary preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds. The program would be free for families earning 200 percent of the federal poverty level or below, which is $47,100 for a family of four. The city is embarking on a feasibility study.

District of Columbia: The nation’s capital, which has paid for preschool since the 1960s, passes a prekindergarten expansion act aimed at making early education for 3- and 4-year-olds universal in the city. As of the 2011-12 school year, 69 percent of 3-year-olds and 92 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in the program.

Denver: Voters approve a sales-tax hike to create the Denver Preschool Program, which gives tuition support to families of children in the last year of preschool before kindergarten. Families can use the tuition support at any of the 250 participating preschools. About 70 percent of the city’s 4-year-olds participated in the program during the 2001-12 school year.

Boston: Then-Mayor Thomas M. Menino calls for an expansion of the city’s prekindergarten programs, which currently serve about 2,300 students a year. The program is administered through Boston Public Schools.

SOURCES: Education Week; National Institute for Early Education Research

Still, New York is not alone in its preschool hopes, said Laura Bornfreund, who studies early education policy for the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank.

“There’s a lot of support out there for prekindergarten, especially at a local level,” Ms. Bornfreund said.

Not every proposal gains traction, however. The city council in Memphis, Tenn., placed a sales-tax referendum on the ballot last August that would have paid for 5,000 additional preschool seats. That vote failed in November, 60 percent to 40 percent. In Houston, supporters of expanded preschool programs also tried to have a property-tax increase placed on the ballot in 2013, but a county judge said the effort did not comply with state law, a ruling that was upheld by a Texas appeals court.

Nimble Response

Even with some setbacks, municipal leaders find themselves able to more nimbly address pre-K needs than state and federal officials, said Tonja Rucker, who oversees early-childhood issues for the National League of Cities, in Washington.

“It comes from being that close to the families, and being closer to the everyday needs of their citizens,” Ms. Rucker said. And in some cases, cities already have experience with early education because they manage federally funded Head Start programs, which are aimed at 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. That gives city leaders the experience and infrastructure to manage their own preschool programs, she said.

Some city leaders also demonstrate a degree of impatience with political maneuvering outside their borders.

“Thousands of Seattle’s children are either not enrolled in early-learning programs at all (because of insufficient space or they cannot afford it), or they are enrolled in programs lacking the quality needed to produce the best outcomes,” wrote Seattle City Councilman Tim Burgess, in a July post on his personal blog. Mr. Burgess led last year’s campaign to bring expanded preschool to the city.

“Seattle cannot afford to wait around for Washington, D.C., or Olympia [the state capital] to properly fund the right kind of early-learning options for our children,” he wrote. “We need to become experts on the pressing issues ourselves and decide what we can do to improve the lives of all our youngest city residents.”

New York state has had a goal of universal preschool for its 4-year-olds since 1998, according to a national evaluation of state preschool programs conducted annually by the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

However, the state has fallen short of that goal because of insufficient funding from state lawmakers, the report says. In the 2011-12 school year, institute researchers said that 44 percent of New York’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in preschool, and 75 percent of those children were in half-day programs.

Mr. de Blasio’s advisors have not put numbers to the preschool proposal, but the plan would convert some current half-day seats in the city to full-day prekindergarten seats, as well as create brand-new slots. Though the preschool expansion does not yet have a date set for implementation, the mayor has said that programs that are also part of this initiative could start serving children as soon as the 2014-15 school year.

Estimated Tax Bite

The Independent Budget Office, a municipally funded agency providing economic forecasts for the city, told Education Week that the population of New York City taxpayers earning $500,000 to $1 million would, as a group, see an average increase of $973 in personal-income tax. The population in the highest-income category—about 1,200 people earning from $10 million on up—would, as a group, pay an average of about $183,000 more a year than they’re paying now, the budget office said. The mayor has said that five years of taxing authority is enough to get the program up and running, and after that, it can be financed through other sources instead of targeted taxation.

W. Steven Barnett, the executive director of the Rutgers institute, says the tax proposal allows a dedicated funding stream for the program, rather than relying on the priorities of the state legislators.

“If you go to Albany, they give you more money this year and take it away next year,” he said. “The history in New York is that the rug has been pulled out from under programs pretty quickly.”

Getting on the Bandwagon

Potential opposition hasn’t deterred city union chiefs, with Democratic state lawmakers, or city leaders. Sixty-eight percent of New York City voters support the mayor’s proposal, according to a November poll conducted by Quinnipiac University, in Hamden, Conn.

“Those of us who have taught in New York schools have always heard about the promise of all-day pre-K,” said Michael Mulgrew, the president of New York United Federation of Teachers, at the Jan. 6 event. “We’ve heard about it for generations, and we think we are at a moment in time when we can actually finally get it done.”

Mr. de Blasio’s plan, though popular among his supporters, is getting a tepid response in other important quarters.

Dean G. Skelos, a Republican and the New York Senate majority leader, has come out in support of the concept of universal prekindergarten, Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Republicans, said in an interview. But the tax burden on state residents is already high, he added.

“The answer can’t always be, ‘Let’s raise taxes,’ ” he said. “And tax policy in the city affects the rest of the state.”

Gov. Cuomo, in his Jan. 8 address to the state’s general assembly, also offered his support for universal prekindergarten, without specifying a funding commitment. But he went into greater detail on several tax-relief plans, including freezing property tax for homeowners and offering a tax credit for low-income renters. His proposed budget plan, due later this month, is expected to offer more details on how he would approach paying for additional preschool seats.

Mr. de Blasio has countered that three of his predecessors have successfully petitioned Albany for the right to levy taxes on city residents, including a tax on tobacco intended to help curb smoking and a tax raising money for law enforcement.

“I appreciate the challenges of the upstate economy,” Mr. de Blasio said in a press conference after the governor’s speech. New York City has “a different set of challenges. We have an education challenge that is profound that we have to address.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 2014 edition of Education Week as Cities Take Lead on Expanding Early Education


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