Report Education

The Challenge of Making Universal Prekindergarten a Reality in New York State

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October 23, 2013

The expansion of preschool opportunities has been receiving attention of late from national, state and
local leaders. President Obama’s 2013 State of the Union Address called for access to high-quality
preschool for every child, and he proposed to make federal funds available to improve preschool access and quality for children from low- and moderate-income families. In New York Governor Andrew
Cuomo created in early 2013 the New NY Education Reform Commission, a 25-member panel tasked
with making recommendations for improving the quality, accountability, and financing of public
education. It has recommended that access to early educational opportunities be increased by
providing full-day prekindergarten (pre-k) to all children in the state’s highest needs school districts. Most recently, New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has made all day pre-k for all four-year olds a centerpiece of his campaign.

Education advocates, led by the Center for Children’s Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational
Equity, have recently advanced a proposal that calls on State leaders “to recognize explicitly the right of
every three- and four-year-old child to a high-quality, full-day prekindergarten program.” This “rightsbased” pre-k program would be phased in over eight years starting with four-year-olds in districts with high concentrations of low-income households in year one and all four-years-olds in the state in years two and three. Three-year-olds in high-poverty districts would be added in years six and seven, and in year eight all three-year-olds would be covered. After a phase-in period state aid for the program would be added to and distributed through the K-12 funding formulas that require a local contribution, and the per pupil spending target would be set to include transportation, health, and family support

If New York is to embrace the ambitious goal of universal pre-k, it must first acknowledge that it will be
costly to achieve. To date New York has not fulfilled the funding targets set for a pre-k program
established in 1997. Moreover, because the emphasis to date in New York has been on expanding
access rather than enriching services, current per pupil spending on pre-k in New York lags national
norms and falls well below spending per pupil in neighboring states that offer more targeted programs.
If pre-k is to accomplish the lasting benefits for disadvantaged students shown in research studies, more intensive and expensive programming will be required. Finally, because a large majority of children from upper-income families already attend privately financed pre-k programs, it is questionable whether the significant expenditure necessary to fund pre-k seats in public schools for these children should be a priority use of scarce tax dollars.