It was the summer of 1997, and the state of New York had just completed one of those absurdly late budgets that Governor Cuomo has now made a ritual of ridiculing. However tardy the deal, people in New York City were excited by its contents: the state had promised to spend $857 million over four years to pay for universal pre-kindergarten. “It’s a commitment we make to every 4-year-old in the state, a way to reach children to prepare them for school,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, according to the Daily News.
That commitment was never kept. As a report released in October by the Center for Children’s Initiatives and the Campaign for Educational Equity found, today, “[n]early 40 percent of the state’s school districts are not even eligible to apply for state pre-K funding. At least 30,000 high-need 4-year-olds are not served. And 75 percent of our pre-K students are in half-day programs, which research shows to be insufficient to meet the needs of children and their families.”
During his budget address yesterday, Cuomo referenced the 1997 promise as evidence of the Empire State’s deep loyalty to the idea that every kid should start school as prepared as possible, with disadvantages due to poverty drilled down as much as early childhood teachers can drill them. It was a nifty twist on what, looked at more coldly, was really a broken promise.
The debate over whether Cuomo’s or Mayor Bill de Blasio’s vision for pre-K (and afterschool programs) should prevail has been cast as a narrow question of whether the idea should be funded by the dedicated local tax on high earners that de Blasio wants, or through some other mechanism, as Cuomo has since October suggested as his preference.
The governor’s budget speech made clear that the differences go beyond the revenue plan.
De Blasio’s initiative calls for $340 million in annual spending on pre-K and $190 million on middle-grade after-school, for a total of $530 million a year, or some $2.65 billion over five years. Cuomo talked about spending—over five years for the entire state—$1.5 billion on pre-K and $720 million on after-school. Next year, only $100 million would be available for pre-K, and in 2015-16 some $160 million would be set aside for after-school.
Even if you figure in some ramp-up time, and account for the fact that two thirds of New York state public school children are served outside New York City, there’s no way Cuomo’s plan pays for the kind of effort de Blasio got elected to provide.
That’s probably because the governor depicts a different landscape than the one de Blasio built his campaign around. The mayor talks about “a tale of two cities” and inequality as a defining issue for government to tackle. In contrast, the governor yesterday listed tax reduction as a primary goal of government, and his budget director actually referred to the estate tax as the “move to die” tax—version 2.0 of the silly code-words the GOP first started throwing around in the 1990s about the “death tax.”
While he did say that government also “forges community…provides relief and restores economic opportunity,” Cuomo never once mentioned poverty in a state with the tenth-highest overall poverty rate (17.2 percent) and eleventh-highest child poverty rate (25.4 percent) in 2012. (And that’s not just New York City poverty dragging the state down: after the Bronx and Brooklyn, the highest county poverty in New York State is in Franklin, Tompkins, Chautauqua and other upstate counties.)