Stunning Victory for Preschoolers in New York: $340 Million Expansion of Full-Day Pre-K

By now, nearly everyone knows that Pre-K  is a hot topic in New York State, topping the legislative agenda, with key state officials  agreeing that the key questions were not whether to invest, but how much and how fast – and how to pay for it.

And who would get the credit for doing the most.

By early January, prior to the official start of the legislative session and state budget negotiations, New York City newly-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio  put Pre-K front and center in state politics, by proposing  a modest new tax on income over $500,000 to pay for full-day Pre-K services for all of New York City’s four-year-olds.  The debate over the tax, which needed approval in Albany, generated story after story – to the delight of children’s advocates in New York.  Suddenly, almost overnight, the debate shifted from one over the merits of early childhood education to the merits of using different revenue streams to pay for it.  Day after day, story after story, in every kind of media, new and old, the debate ensued.  Would Albany greenlight a tax?  Did the Mayor have a real plan?  Could it be done fast?  Would it be of high quality?  Would there be enough qualified teachers?  Space?  We had to pinch ourselves every day, as we woke up to new stories, new calls from reporters, new advocates, new enthusiasm.

By mid-January, Governor Andrew Cuomo was fully engaged as well.  A champion of full-day Pre-k in 2013, his own Education Reform Commission had recommended expansion of full-day Pre-K as the next strategic educational investment the state could make.  In his state of the state, he declared, “We must get young minds engaged as early as possible” and “it is time for New York State to have universal full-day pre-k statewide.” The Governor acknowledged the leadership of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in launching UPK in 1997, as a key part of education reform.  With over 100,000 children enrolled statewide, the state had a strong base to build on. It was time, he said, for the state to move to full-day and truly universal service.

Within days, he made his own headlines pledging to support a five-year expansion of full-day Pre-K, with a cumulative investment of $1.5 billion.  He also pledged to make that investment without raising anyone’s taxes.

From January to April, the debate raged, with the Governor and the Mayor sparring over how to pay for the expansion and how quickly it could be rolled out as a quality service.  On April 1, the final budget was signed, and it included a remarkable $340 million in new state dollars to support expansion of full-day Pre-K.  Mayor de Blasio did not get his tax.  But he did win $300 million for New York City. And the budget also included $40 million for the rest of the state.

As advocates know, the devil is always in the details of the budget language, crafted in the waning and heated hours of negotiations. We got our first chance to take a careful look in those last hours before it was enacted and have taken time to digest it in the weeks that followed.

There is no diminishing the win – it is remarkable!  State Pre-K funding overall has nearly doubled, growing from $410 million to $750 statewide.  But it will roll out as a competitive grants, with its own rates and set of requirements. For now, the state is calling it Innovative Pre-K, an apt title for a program with strong quality benchmarks and new incentives to strengthen community partnerships. It will also operate as a reimbursable program, instead of a grant.  We now await the state RFP and our next steps.

New York City is forging ahead, even ahead of the state RFP, determined to draw down the entire $300 million allocated to the city. Programs, including museums and libraries, have already applied for contracts.  Parents have applied for seats.  Teachers are being actively recruited.

None of this happened, of course, without serious work on the ground from advocates over the years.  Early childhood advocates joined with public education advocates in recent years to elevate early childhood education as a top priority, testifying and advocating before the Governor’s Education Reform Commision to make early childhood a top priority.  CCI partnered with a key member of the Education Reform Commission to put forward an eight-year roadmap for making Pre-K truly universal, costing it out, and making it the joint ask of the state’s leading early childhood and public education groups even before the Governor released his budget.  CCI also worked with the city’s early childhood advocates, as part of the Campaign for Children, to call for new investment in early care and learning during last year’s extended Mayoral primary and election race.

The year all the hard work paid off, of course.  And not just for Pre-K.  The Winning BeginningNY campaign also carried the prenatal to third grade message, and worked hard to promote new investment in child care and home visiting.  The result -- $41 million new investment from the state in child care services.  The state’s Nurse Family Partnership was also protected.  These investments do not support expansion – but they do protect programs from cuts that would have occurred because of declining federal funding.  And, of course the advocacy campaigns put state elected officials on notice that investing early is key – and set the stage for a bigger investment next year.

-Betty Holcomb, Policy Director, Center for Children’s Initiatives
May 15, 2014