New York will begin universal pre-kindergarten


From left, New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan), state Senate co-leader Jeff Klein (D-Bronx) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio arrive for a universal pre-kindergarten rally on March 4 at the Washington Avenue Armory in Albany, N.Y. (Mike Groll/ AP)

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio will get hundreds of millions of dollars to implement a universal pre-kindergarten program, while high-earning city residents avoided the tax increase de Blasio sought to pay for the new program.

In a budget agreement reached over the weekend, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and legislative leaders agreed to spend a little over $1.5 billion over five years, or about $340 million a year, on free full-day classes for 4-year-olds. The vast majority of that money, $300 million, is allocated to New York City.

“It’s not just an aggressive undertaking for statewide pre-K, it’s also about a quality pre-K program. We’ve rewritten the rules for pre-K in New York,” Cuomo said in a weekend conference call announcing the deal.

De Blasio had made a universal pre-kindergarten program a cornerstone of his successful mayoral campaign last year. He proposed paying the $340 million tab by raising income taxes on wealthy New York City residents, although any increases would have to be approved by the state legislature. De Blasio said on Saturday that the $300 million would be enough to build out the program.

But de Blasio didn’t get everything he wanted: Cuomo’s budget increased tuition funding for charter school students over a three-year period, and it requires New York City to find locations for charter schools either within existing public school buildings or in private space. De Blasio has been critical of charter schools.

Cuomo’s budget agreement, reached with the Democratic-controlled Assembly and a Senate divided between Republicans and Democrats, will spend $137.9 billion, a modest 1.9 percent increase. On the conference call with reporters, Cuomo spotlighted the 5.3 percent increase in statewide education funding, amounting to an extra $1.1 billion for schools.

But the proposal also provides $1.5 billion in property tax relief over a three-year period, through incentives to local governments that share services. New York has one of the highest property tax rates in the country.

Several other states have debated expanding pre-kindergarten programs in recent years. Forty states provide at least some public money for pre-K classes; in 2002, Florida voters passed a constitutional amendment requiring school districts to offer voluntary pre-kindergarten programs to all 4-year-olds. Georgia and Oklahoma were the first states to offer universal pre-kindergarten programs. Minnesota last year created a scholarship program for low-income families. Across the country, an average of 28 percent of 4-year olds are enrolled in similar programs, according to data from the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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