Early Childhood

During hearing, de Blasio's pre-K gatekeepers scrutinize his plan

Bill de Blasio and Andrew Cuomo at a press conference in Albany discussing Brooklyn hospitals. The duo played down tension around their competing visions for funding universal pre-kindergarten.

ALBANY — The gatekeepers who stand in the way of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priority — overhauling the city’s pre-kindergarten services and lengthening the middle school day — got their most prominent chance yet today to publicly scrutinize, praise and denounce the details of his plan.

In more than two hours of testimony this morning, state lawmakers lobbed a range of questions about his proposal, which he wants to fund with a local income tax hike and begin implementing immediately. Just 20,000 city 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, and de Blasio believes the city can more than triple that number in less than two years.

Lawmakers wanted to know why de Blasio needed new taxes to pay for something that could be covered by the state, pointing to an alternative funding proposal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo floated last week. Several asked why charter schools have been absent from the proposal’s details, with a Bronx senator threatening to withhold his support over the issue.

And some fretted about de Blasio’s ambitious implementation schedule. New details of his plan, released this morning, estimate that the city is prepared to create or renovate enough space and hire enough new teachers to bring full-day pre-K programs to an additional 55,000 students between now and the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

“We’re a little gun shy up here when it comes to the rollout of educational things over the last couple of months and years,” said Michael Cusik, a Democratic Assemblyman from Staten Island, alluding to the state’s bumpy implementation of Common Core standards and new teacher evaluations. “So I think a lot of the questions are based on implementation of these plans that you put forward.”

De Blasio argued that any challenge standing in the way of his plan paled in comparison to the educational “crisis” facing New York City’s schools. As evidence, he repeatedly cited a New York Times editorial that included the long-reported data point that three-quarters of city students lack the skills necessary to take college-level classes after four years of high school. 

“We are in the midst of an inequality crisis,” de Blasio said, echoing the progressive theme that he campaigned on during in the mayoral race last year. (De Blasio did not comment on the main point of the Times editorial, which was about preserving Mayor Bloomberg’s school evaluation system.)

De Blasio’s inaugural venture to the joint legislative budget hearing was an unusual one. Typically, local government leaders and others use the annual hearings to make their respective cases for more money in the state budget.

But de Blasio delivered the opposite message to lawmakers, saying he didn’t need the state’s money to fulfill his pre-K plan. He only needs the vote of approval required any time a local municipality wants to raise local taxes. De Blasio’s tax hike would target city residents who earn over $500,000.

“We’re not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs in New York City,” said de Blasio, debunking what he called a “myth” that had proliferated in the debate over how to fund his plan. Cuomo has proposed a less expensive state-funded plan that he says would draw on existing funds.

Some lawmakers wholeheartedly endorsed de Blasio’s proposal. Staten Island Democratic Senator Diane Savino said Cuomo’s alternative funding plan would not begin to equal the costs of what the city says is needed to fulfill its expanded pre-K and after-school programs. She also noted that it was not unusual for the legislature to approve municipalities’ proposals for local tax hikes.

“It is not uncommon for local elected bodies to come to the legislature with a local request to establish a funding stream just for their locality,” said Savino, noting that the Senate was expected to pass five such measures in its session today.

But there was also plenty of skepticism about de Blasio’s proposal from both Democrats and Republicans, and from lawmakers both inside and outside of the city. While no one took issue with the idea of expanding access to pre-K, they critiqued de Blasio’s implementation plans.

“My concern simply revolved around maybe biting off more than we can chew right away,” said William Magnarelli, a Democratic Assemblyman from Syracuse.

There are “areas of government where I couldn’t agree with you more,” de Blasio responded. But he said his plan can handle an aggressive implementation schedule because it is based on “powerful existing models for pre-K and for after school.”

And de Blasio faced pushback around his omission of any mention of the role of charter schools in his plan.

“Your idea of pre-K is great, but it has to include charter schools,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz, Jr., a Democrat from the Bronx, adding that he’d side with Cuomo’s funding proposal, which includes funding access for charter schools. “That would be one of the things that will [help] me make up my mind on how to vote and which plan to support.”

Including charter schools in any pre-K expansion is a sentiment that other minority lawmakers said in interviews they agreed with, including Assembly member Karim Camara and Senator Kevin Parker, both of whom represent districts in Brooklyn.

An exception was State Sen. Bill Perkins, of Harlem, who said he hoped that any final plan would block charter schools from receiving state pre-K funds, as is currently the case. Perkins has been a consistent critic of charter schools for years.

De Blasio dodged questions about whether he supports a change in state law that would make it easier for charter schools to access pre-K funds. He repeated that he was open to the idea, but also said that some organizations, naming Harlem Children’s Zone in particular, already had models that effectively managed charter schools and pre-K programs as separate, but affiliated entities.

After the testimony, de Blasio sat next to Cuomo at a press conference about the grim finances of status of Brooklyn’s hospitals, during which they projected a united front. But questions quickly turned to their strategies for expanding pre-K programs.

“It’s about the money,” Cuomo said. “It’s about the money.”

De Blasio immediately responded, “It’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”

A new floor

Colorado’s new minimum wage means raises for child care workers and tuition increases for parents

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Loveland's Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center was one of the first two centers in the state to get a Level 5 rating in the Colorado Shines rating system.

Child care teachers and assistants absolutely deserve the raises that come from Colorado’s new minimum wage of $10.20 an hour, their bosses say, but the pay increases also mean that many providers will pass on the new expenses to tuition-paying parents already stretched thin by child care costs.

“I don’t know how much more parents can pay,” said Diane Price, who heads a nonprofit network of seven centers in Colorado Springs.

In some parts of the state, early childhood advocates also worry that the raises mandated by the minimum wage hike will cause some workers to lose public benefits by pushing their income just above the eligibility threshold — making it harder, not easier to make ends meet.

In a field working to professionalize its ranks, pay its workers more, and raise awareness about the educational and economic value of quality child care, many observers say the minimum wage increase is a step in the right direction.

“It’s an important move,” said Christi Chadwick, director of the “Transforming the Early Childhood Workforce” project at the nonprofit Early Milestones Colorado. “The thing I struggle with is we’re still not getting people out of poverty and paying them on par with the public school system.”

Price, the president and CEO of Early Connections Learning Centers, said, “Shame on us that we even have to have this discussion that early educators are in a category that pays minimum wage.”

The latest minimum wage increase, which took effect Jan. 1, is the second of four annual increases mandated by a ballot measure approved by Colorado voters in 2016. The last step of the phase-in process will boost the minimum wage to $12 in 2020.

Colorado is among 29 states — most in the northeast and west — that have set a minimum wage higher than the federal rate of $7.25 an hour, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Child care providers here say advance planning and clear communication with parents have helped them incorporate raises into their budgets.

Price, who raised tuition slightly at her centers last August, said she anticipates a budget hit of about $600,000 over the four-year phase-in period.

But that’s not just because her lowest paid staff members are getting raises to comply with the minimum wage law. Like many other child care directors, she’s giving raises across the board out of fairness to veteran employees.

Price said she didn’t want entry-level employees to catch up with those who already hav a Child Development Associate credential or an associate’s degree.

Heather Griffith, who leads the for-profit Young Peoples Learning Center in Fort Collins, is taking the same approach. Her whole staff, except two brand new employees, have received raises.

She’s already sent out a letter notifying parents that tuition will go up 6.5 percent on February 1 – that’s an additional $16 a week for a full-time preschool slot. It’s the second of three tuition hikes Griffith will institute during the minimum wage phase-in period.

While the higher costs are hard on parents, “it’s a lot tougher for these teachers to survive on non-livable wages,” Griffith said. “I’m 100 percent in support of this minimum wage hike.”

Griffith hasn’t gotten much pushback over the impending tuition increase. The thriving economy helps. Also, she said, parents like the care her centers provide and wouldn’t be able to find it for much less unless they switched to unlicensed care, which is mostly unregulated.

Anne Lance, who heads the non-profit Teaching Tree Early Childhood Learning Center in northern Colorado, said she began planning — and frontloading — wage increases for all staff shortly after the 2016 ballot measure passed.
Currently, her entry-level teaching assistants start at $10.50 an hour even though she’s only required to pay $10.20.

“I had to get way ahead of the game … so in a couple years when it gets closer to that $12, it’s not going to kill me,” said Lance, who operates one center in Loveland and one in Fort Collins.

While the center’s two sites serve many low-income children who qualify for state child care subsidies or state-funded preschool slots, there are some tuition-paying families in the mix, too.

It’s those parents who may feel the sting of the minimum wage increases over the next couple years. Lance said she’ll keep her tuition increases to a modest 3 percent this year, but may have to jump up to 5 percent in 2019 and 2020.

On average, lead teachers with several years of experience at Teaching Tree make about $13.50 an hour. While that’s above the minimum wage, it’s not much to live on for employees on their own or those who are single parents, Lance said.

In Colorado, about one-third of child care teachers qualify for some kind of public assistance to cover housing, food, health insurance, or child care costs, according to a 2017 survey of child care workers in the state.

Chadwick, of Early Milestones, said during visits last fall to the San Luis Valley and southeastern Colorado, early childhood leaders explained that some child care workers were quitting their jobs due to fears they would lose government benefits when minimum wage-related raises took effect.

To alleviate such concerns and make child care a profession that pays a living wage, more substantial raises are needed. But Chadwick and other leaders don’t expect further funding to come from a state-level effort.

Instead, they say it will be locally-funded initiatives — already underway in some Colorado communities — that pick up the slack.

“We have to pass things like mill levies and taxes that support early childhood,” said Griffith, of Young Peoples Learning Center. “We have to do it. We have to say yes to these things if what we want is a community that has educated kids ready to go into kindergarten.”

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.