In a show of support for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposed universal preschool program, leaders of New York City’s largest and most powerful unions held a press conference with the mayor today firmly backing his plan to pay for the program through a tax increase on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 per year.
“New York state has promised over the years to fund universal pre-k—for over 15 years now we’ve heard it—but has never provided the funding needed to make this program become a reality,” said Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council. “It is critical that this funding also be a dedicated source … not just money from the general fund, because it’s the only way to ensure that these programs won’t be cut in the future.”
The press conference was held at the same time as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s press conference endorsing his tax reform commission’s plan to cut $2 billion in business and property taxes over the next few years, creating the appearance that Cuomo and de Blasio are marching down divergent paths in the taxation discussion. When asked whether the timing of his press conference coinciding with Cuomo’s was a sign of a potential face-off between the two, de Blasio pivoted to firmly assert that the city should have control over its own revenues.
“We’ve said throughout that there is a very clear history. The last three mayors went to Albany and asked for the opportunity simply to raise revenue here among our own people and, in fact, in all three cases Albany granted them that chance. We expect to see continuity,” de Blasio said.
Noting their long history of working together, De Blasio stressed that he respects Cuomo and his vision for cutting state taxes, but emphasized, “We’re talking about the ability of the people in New York City to tax ourselves.”
Later, when pressed as to why he would not consider a compromise whereby his universal preschool program would be funded by the state budget, as opposed to a tax increase, as one outlet has reported Cuomo is considering, de Blasio explained that his goal is to find dedicated funding for the program for at least five consecutive years to ensure that it is protected from potential budget cuts. After that five-year span, de Blasio said that it would be “fair” for the city to then have to find additional resources to fund the program within its budget.
“Some of my colleagues said something that’s profoundly important: when the budget cuts come, the children are often the first to take the hit,” de Blasio said. “There’s a rich, painful history of this, so when we think about sustained funding, dedicated funding, we think about first of all, the reliability in terms of planning and performance that comes from having that dedicated funding, but, secondly, we know that it is not protected each and every year, and that’s not good. That’s not healthy for our children.”
De Blasio also shed some light on the nuts and bolts of his proposed preschool program, as well as his initiative to fund after-school programs for middle school students—which would also be paid for with the tax increase—saying that the goal is for every single child of preschool age to have full-day preschool available to them “within a reasonable distance of their home.” As far as finding enough space to house preschool classrooms, de Blasio said that there are some schools right now that have additional classroom capacity, and that after taking stock of the city’s school buildings, the administration should know how many seats they can make available by September. He added that in some cases, the city will lease space in various types of buildings for preschool centers, and in other cases the city will create brand new preschool centers to serve entire neighborhoods.
In regard to after-school programs, de Blasio said that he is confident that between school facilities, libraries and nonprofit organizations, there will be enough space for every middle school child to have a guaranteed seat.
Among the many city labor leaders in attendance was United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who was initially hesitant to sign off on the plan. Mulgrew said that after meeting with de Blasio’s team on the mechanics of the universal preschool and after-school proposals, he was convinced that the administration can make it work.
“We’ve heard [universal preschool promises] as educators for generations,” Mulgrew said. “When I sat down with Mayor de Blasio’s staff, their breadth and understanding of the mechanics and nuts and bolts of this was really what our concern was. You can tell by what the mayor just said that they really have engaged themselves in a meaningful way to not just figure out the funding source, but how to make this work for the entire city.”