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.)
But even if Cuomo pledged to match every dime de Blasio wanted to get from high earners, his plan would meet suspicion because of the history. As that October report put it:
The original UPK statute was a grant program that anticipated, by the end of a five-year phase-in period, that each school district would receive a grant providing a minimum of $2,000 and a maximum of $4,000 per student, based on district wealth and need factors; the initial grants were to begin at a minimum of $260 per student level, and ramp up each year over the five-year period. Five years after the law’s enactment, however, the state was far from reaching the full funding level that had originally been contemplated: for 2003-04, only $204 million was appropriated for the program, less than half of the $500 million originally projected for that year, and only about a third of the districts in the state were participating.
After his election in 2006, Governor Eliot Spitzer tried to restore the program, but after two years staying on track, “state fiscal constraints from the 2008 recession caused the state, starting in 2010, to essentially freeze further increases,” the report found.
And the demise of the 1997 pre-K plan is just one example of New York City’s being promised help from Albany that never quite arrives. In another one, parents of city schoolchildren won a landmark ruling a decade ago that found the state’s education funding formula had systematically shortchanged the city, and a settlement called for the state to fund the city more generously, but budget cuts soon derailed that make-good.
Hence the reaction to Cuomo’s speech from groups like Make the Road New York , which said in a statement: “We are pleased that Governor Cuomo has made universal Pre-K a priority, but we are concerned that without a designated funding stream there will not be sufficient funds to fully implement this proposal, and that the programs could evaporate the next time there is a deficit.”
Cuomo’s Big Idea is that he’s brought a different way of doing business to Albany—pragmatic, honest, efficient; he’s not even shy about comparing his governance favorably to his own father’s tenure. And there’s truth to the notion that Cuomo has swept some of the chaos out of the annual budget process, achieved major legislative successes and pursued very smart if unpopular ideas (like consolidating local governments). But his position on pre-K doesn’t appear that different from what was done in the past—basically, less than we needed to do.
Two years ago, Cuomo looked unstoppable: what he wanted from the legislature, it seemed, he got. But it’s different now. He didn’t get the women’s equality agenda he pushed for last year, or some of the ethics reforms he wanted. Now he’s asking for those again, and more. So his stand on pre-K will be part of a complex mix of give and take negotiated among the governor, an Assembly strongly in favor of pre-K and a state Senate where there’s been substantial support for the idea, all with a statewide election coming up in 2014 and, for Cuomo, maybe a national contest in 2016.
It should be fun to watch. Whatever you do, New Yorkers, don’t “move to die” before it all plays out.