More Than Enough Seats for Pre-K, Says de Blasio

February 26, 2014 Updated: February 26, 2014

NEW YORK—The city’s Department of Education received enough proposals from providers to create 29,000 full-day prekindergarten seats by September this year, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday.

That is 8,000 more seats than what’s needed to reach the mayor’s pre-K goal for 2014, and the strongest indication yet that providers are equipped to deliver on the mayor’s top priority.

The Department of Education received proposals for pre-K programs from 929 sites, more than double the number from last year. More than two-thirds of the sites are community-based organizations, while the rest are public elementary schools. The applications are the result of an extensive outreach effort. The mayor said that staff reached out to all providers across the city to gauge their capacity and potential to expand.

Given the significant number of proposals, the Education Department is also ramping up its work with other city agencies.

If the number of pre-K seats increases as proposed by September, so would potential sites to inspect. The Department of Health is already involved in identifying any issues as they surface, according to a report from the mayor’s office. Usually, the department would not get involved until the summer.

Efforts are also underway to hire more early education teachers. The Education Department has opened up its applicant pool to community-based organizations. The city has also announced a teacher recruitment initiative, tentatively known as TeachUPK-NYC.

Revenue Stream

The biggest concern remains how the program will be funded.

De Blasio’s plan is to impose a five-year tax on New Yorkers who earn more than $500,000 annually. Doing that would require approval from Albany, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo has refused the mayor’s idea and proposed to fund universal pre-K statewide from the state’s budget. Cuomo also offered the city a blank check to implement the program.

De Blasio declined the governor’s offer, doubting the stability of state funding. He has insisted that universal pre-K requires a dedicated funding stream. The mayor has also refused to develop a backup plan in case state funding falls through, saying it would be the same as betting against himself.

“I keep putting this plan forward because this is the best way to get it done. It’s my job to represent the people of this city and to make clear to Albany what we need,” de Blasio said at P.S. 130 in Lower Manhattan Tuesday. “If you said mayors historically would just give in whenever people in Albany didn’t agree with something, they wouldn’t have gotten very far.”

The response from pre-K providers is another point for de Blasio as he continues to build support for his program. Last month a coalition of major union leaders signed on to support the plan.

Anticipated Benefits

The benefits of early childhood education are wide ranging and far outweigh the costs, according to supporters of universal pre-K, which include the city’s Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña and many education experts. De Blasio experienced the benefits firsthand as both of his children attended pre-K programs.

“This is an opportunity we cannot let fail,” Fariña said at P.S. 130 as de Blasio looked on. She added that pre-K programs benefit parents as well, since they are more likely to engage with schools if their children begin attending at a younger age.

Yet educational benefits are only part of the picture. De Blasio sees pre-K as a fundamental piece in his agenda of fighting inequality in New York City. On Tuesday, he referred to universal pre-K as “mission critical” and a “number one priority.”

Families with higher incomes are more likely to be able to afford pre-K, while lower income families struggle to balance work and taking care of their children. Making pre-K available to all New Yorkers for free would thus be a significant victory for the city’s fledgling progressive administration.

The mayor made the announcement at P.S. 130 in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Nine out of 10 students at the school are Asian and more than 15 percent are English-language learners.

“Imagine what a difference this is going to make for the parents of this community, who know their children are getting the real kind of start they need, a real foundation for their education,” de Blasio said.

“To know it’s available, it’s consistent, and it’s free. That’s what our vision is. We want to help schools like P.S. 130 do that. And we’ve got a plan that proves that we can do this.”

De Blasio read a Dr. Seuss book to a class of pre-K children there, smiling throughout. He got hugs and handshakes before leaving.

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