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King says statewide pre-K would cost far more than Cuomo budgeted

Commissioner John King testifies at a budget hearing on Tuesday.
Commissioner John King testifies at a budget hearing on Tuesday.

ALBANY — Expanding pre-kindergarten access across New York State would cost more in a single year than Gov. Andrew Cuomo has budgeted for five years, state schools chief John King said today.

Testifying during a legislative hearing on Cuomo’s proposed budget, King said providing full-day pre-K for all four-year-olds could cost as much as $1.6 billion a year. His estimate matches an analysis that the independent Citizens Budget Commission released in October and is very different from Cuomo’s proposal, which calls for $1.5 billion in new spending over five years.

King’s estimate provides yet more fodder for the debate over how to fund pre-kindergarten in the state, which has dominated discussions so far in this year’s legislative session. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Cuomo have proposed competing funding strategies and different dollar amounts for the initiative, while advocacy groups have weighed in with their own ideas of what the programs would cost.

King arrived at his figure by doubling what the state currently spends on half-day programs, about $400 million. He then doubled the figure again — from $800 million to $1.6 billion — to account for half of the four-year-olds who aren’t enrolled in any kind of public pre-kindergarten program.

Cuomo pegged the costs at $1.5 billion over five years, including $100 million in the first year. De Blasio’s plan is to use revenue from an income tax hike on the city’s highest earners that he says would bring in $1.7 billion over five years, or $340 million per year.

Brooklyn Assemblyman James Brennan said Cuomo’s proposal “could be a nice down payment” but would fall well short of the resources to allow all 4-year-olds to attend public pre-K programs.

Advocates have said full implementation would cost far more than both plans.

Steven Barnett and Megan Carolan, of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said Cuomo’s proposal would barely cover what it costs to convert half-day seats to full-day seats. Their analysis suggests that full implementation could cost more than $2 billion annually.

And Kate Breslin, president and CEO of the Schuyler Center for Analysis and Advocacy, argued that Cuomo should dedicate $225 million per year to expand pre-K, but that the funding shouldn’t end after five years, according to prepared testimony submitted to the committee today. Breslin also wants the state to approve de Blasio’s proposed tax hike so that the state can focus its funds on more cash-strapped districts rather than shipping pre-K funds downstate to New York City.

But funding is only one part of the expansion puzzle, and King said that even if the state provided enough funding for full-day pre-K for all eligible children, an unlikely scenario, most districts wouldn’t be prepared to use the money. (New York City has already begun preparations for a broad expansion this fall, based on de Blasio’s campaign pledges.)

“The capacity isn’t there to deliver all of those seats and deliver all those full-day programs in September,” King said. “So the challenge over the next few weeks, I think, for the governor and you to grapple with is how do you figure out what a reasonable trajectory is to increase spending over the next few years to get to a place where you could have universal full-day access.”

With the focus of his testimony on pre-K funding, King faced considerably less pushback on the State Education Department’s pace of implementation of the Common Core standards than he did last week at a smaller public meeting with lawmakers. The topic is a priority during this year’s legislative session, with several lawmakers saying they want to consider decoupling Common Core-aligned tests from stakes attached to teacher evaluations and student grade promotion.

Just a few lawmakers raised the issue on Tuesday. But Senate Education Committee Chair John Flanagan issued a terse warning to King that he and the Board of Regents should be prepared to address the issue at next month’s meeting.

“We strongly, diplomatically recommend that when the Regents meet in February, whatever your quote-unquote action plan is, we all want to see it and we better see it, and it better have some cogent items in there that we can take and embrace and hopefully work together and get things done,” Flanagan said.

Today’s hearing schedule, which is focused on Cuomo’s proposed budget for education, will include appearances from New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and city teachers union president Michael Mulgrew.

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