As anybody who reads local papers knows, there is an important political contest taking place in New York politics. The mayor and governor are arguing how to fund a full expansion to universal pre-kindergarten (UPK). Each side is holding firm, making moves, counter moves. The resolution of this conflict is important, not just for the game of politics between New York’s governor and New York City’s mayor, but for the future of all of New York State’s children. While we are waiting for this game of thrones to continue, it’s important to pose two questions to the state’s key players in this debate that remain, in our mind, unanswered.
The first is for Governor Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Silver. While the mayor and governor are focused on a universal full-day pre-k plan, the governor and Legislature have failed to plug another hole: protecting access in the state to kindergarten. That’s right. New York State is one of only eight states in the nation that does not guarantee kindergarten to all of its families. When districts’ budgets get tight, as they did two years ago, school districts in lower income communities all across the state consider cutting back to half-day kindergarten. Some did, and some threatened to eliminate kindergarten all together. With costs rising and revenues shrinking, the temptation to reduce or eliminate kindergarten will only grow.
If universal pre-k succeeds—as we hope it does—the state may find itself guaranteeing full-day pre-k to all, even as some children are denied access to full day kindergarten. This would be both a betrayal of New York’s children and families and a major embarrassment for the state.
Last year, working with delegations of lawmakers from Westchester and Rockland counties, our organization pushed for legislation that would guarantee access to kindergarten. The State Assembly Education Committee Chair, Catherine Nolan, demanded that we limit the bill to just the two counties, which we accepted. Then, however, she blocked it from being introduced.
In order for us to overcome this hurdle, it now falls upon Governor Cuomo and Assembly Speaker Silver to step forward and publicly support guaranteed access to kindergarten for all of the state’s children. Will they do so?
The second question is directed more at just the governor, as the main author of the budget. Is the foremost objective of this pre-k struggle scoring political points, or providing a high-quality educational option to New York’s families?
If it’s about education, then it’s time to study the film from the last time this play was run.
In 1998, then-Governor George Pataki began offering limited pre-k services with the goal of eventually offering pre-k to all four year olds. Sixteen years later, according to a report from Rutgers University, the state’s pre-k program remains unstable and insecure, in part because, once the media stopped paying attention, the money needed to make the initiative work never materialized. Indeed, while the percentage of four year olds enrolled in New York’s UPK program has increased by roughly 20 percent over the past ten years, the funding has decreased by a rate of 52 percent.
What’s more, because the current state-sponsored pre-k program only provides a fraction of the cost necessary to educate four year olds, a lot of money that the state “allocates” is returned unused. No one knows how much for sure, but some have estimated that the number is in the tens of millions. This figure is cause for concern, especially given the fact that the governor, who is holding firm to his proposal, admits that no one really knows how much his universal pre-K plan will cost.
It’s remarkable to see two of the state’s major political players vying with one another to provide an important and needed educational opportunity.
But once the jousting is over, once one side is declared the winner, once the media and citizens of the state have moved on to other matters, it’s important that a pragmatic program, with secure funding, and with no gaps in our children’s educational path, be in place. Then everyone—particularly our youngest and most vulnerable children—wins.
Sister Ana Maria Causa, of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Port Chester, and Rev. Bruce Baker, of Port Chester’s All Souls Parish, are leaders of Westchester United, a power base of congregations and community organizations connecting communities and taking action.
Tags: All Souls Parish, Andrew Cuomo, catherine-nolan, George Pataki, kindergarten, Port Chester, Rockland County, Rosary Catholic Church, Sheldon Silver, universal pre-k, UPK, westchester, Westchester United