How New York’s Universal Preschool Plan Could Fail


New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D)

On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) unveiled a budget plan that includes funding for a state universal preschool program. He plans to dedicate $1.5 billion over the next five years from the general state budget.

But his announcement isn’t entirely new: In 1997, the state passed legislation that called for Pre-K access for all four-year-olds within five years. Yet today, less than half are currently served by preschool programs, and even those who are enrolled are often in half-day classes.

That’s mostly due to troubles over funding. State lawmakers planned to fund the program in stages, but budget problems undermined the effort, particularly after 9/11, and it has yet to fulfill its own funding targets. Funds were supposed to reach $500 million by 2002, but they have yet to get there — in that year, the state gave out less than half of that in grants, or $205 million. It peaked at $451 million in 2008, but during the recession it began to plummet.

While Cuomo has proposed a large sum of money, it would still be subject to budget battles and shortages as the past funding was. And it probably isn’t enough. A report from the Citizen’s Budget Commission estimated that expanding high-quality preschool programs, similar to the programs offered in New Jersey’s highly regarded Abbott districts, to all four-year-olds would cost $1.4 billion a year — the amount Cuomo’s budget doles out over five.

Without a bigger bump in funding, school districts may reject the money out of hand. Many local districts passed up previous state funding meant to help them create Pre-K programs because they said it wasn’t enough. They would have to raise taxes, make cuts, or rely on private programs to make it work. Ten years after the state passed the legislation, more than a third of the school districts didn’t have any programs, and overall they passed up $67.5 million of the $438 million offered by the state. That meant just 38 percent of four-year-olds attended state-financed classes. Even those that had devoted their own funds later cut back during the recession and some even dropped programs altogether. Today, 232 districts don’t have Pre-K programs. Quality measures have also slipped without higher funding.

By contrast, 74 percent of Oklahoma’s four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality Pre-K, more than any other state. It got there by including preschool funding in the public school funding formula instead of creating a separate early education funding stream in the state budget, as Cuomo proposes to do. This “protected pre-K from fiscal conservatives who might object to it as part of a ‘nanny state'” while also shielding it from recession-era budget cuts, as Sharon Lerner writes at The American Prospect. “Indeed, in Oklahoma, pre-k is essentially just another grade,” she explains.

Another plan has been put forward by New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio (D). He campaigned on paying for a universal preschool program in the city with a tax increase of one-half of one percent on all city residents who make more than $500,000. That should bring in about $530 million a year, which would cover the $340 million annual cost for the city. His plan creates a dedicated funding stream not likely to be subject to budget battles that renews every year.

President Obama adopted a similar model when he proposed investing $75 billion in new funding to expand preschool access for all of the country’s children financed by a $0.94 increase in cigarette and tobacco taxes.

If enough investment is made into high-quality universal preschool, the dividends can be huge. A New York state senator who supports de Blasio’s plan has estimated that the city would see a $3.7 billion return for investing in preschool. Other high-quality programs have shown a $7 return or even $11 return for every dollar spent. But the devil is in the funding details.