CIVIC CENTER — Andrew Cuomo is not the first New York governor to promise statewide universal pre-kindergarten — in fact, every governor since George Pataki has made the same commitment. But all have fallen short, as financial downturns and catastrophes like 9/11 diverted the needed funds.
Now, as Cuomo duels with Mayor Bill de Blasio over how to pay for their latest universal pre-K proposals — Cuomo wants to use state funds, while de Blasio wants to raise taxes on the city's richest residents — some advocates are pointing to the state's poor track record as a reason to support de Blasio's plan.
"The issue with universal pre-kindergarten is that everyone thought it was a good idea for a long time but there was never the money," said Kim Sweet, executive director of Advocates for Children, which works to protect children from discrimination. "It's been frustrating over the years to know the need for UPK and to not to be able to come up with the funding."
De Blasio sparked a political showdown earlier this month by rejecting Cuomo's offer to provide $1.5 billion for universal pre-K across the state over the next five years. Instead of using state funds to create thousands of new pre-K seats in the city, de Blasio wants to increase taxes on the city's most affluent residents, which he said would guarantee a more reliable funding stream.
Some education advocates, as well as de Blasio insiders, say the mayor is wise not to rely on state-based universal pre-K funding, since Albany has a long history of making pre-K promises it can't keep.
The advocates say Cuomo's $1.5 billion promise sounds worryingly similar to commitments made by former governors Pataki, Eliot Spitzer and David Paterson that fell through as budget priorities changed.
In 1997, Pataki promised hundreds of millions of dollars to fund universal pre-K across the state starting the following year, pledging a seat for every 4-year-old within four years.
However, by the 2001-02 school year, the state was spending just $207.4 million on universal pre-K, less than half of what was originally supposed to be allocated, according to a report by the Citizens Budget Commission.
The state faced difficulties early on in convincing school districts to sign up for the program, and then got caught in the fiscal squeeze of the dot-com bubble bursting in the late 1990s, followed by the 9/11 terror attacks, further shifting officials' priorities, the Citizens Budget Commission found.
Pre-K funding remained largely flat until Eliot Spitzer was elected governor in 2006 and made pre-K a key piece of his agenda.
“Within four years, we should make pre-kindergarten available to every 4-year-old in New York,” Spitzer said in his 2007 state of the state address.
That year, Spitzer dedicated $438 million to pre-K statewide, but a year later the economy collapsed and pre-K once again took a hit, even as Paterson replaced Spitzer and made similar pledges about pre-K's importance.
By the 2012-13 school year, the state was offering only $385 million in universal pre-K funding statewide, with just $374.4 million being used to serve about 101,000 children.
That's why some advocates, including Nancy Kolben, executive director of the Center for Children's Initiatives, who is serving on de Blasio's six-person UPK working group, have expressed skepticism about Cuomo's pre-K funding promise.
"We've seen over the years, unless you have a regular, reliable, appropriate level of funding, it's impossible to develop this program at the level in which you need," Kolben said, noting the difficulties faced by the Pataki, Spitzer and Paterson administrations.
"This level of funding, really understanding that, locking that in by whatever means you're going to do it, is really critical," she added. "This was a very long time in coming."
Cuomo and de Blasio's offices did not respond to requests for comment.
On Jan. 27, de Blasio told state lawmakers that it is essential for the city to have a reliable funding stream for pre-K, which he thinks is best accomplished by raising takes on New Yorkers making more than $500,000 per year.
“Let’s be clear about two principles key to making true universal pre-K a reality. First, funding for universal, full-day pre-K must be dedicated and sufficient to meet the immediate needs of our children,” de Blasio told the legislators. “And second, the funding must be predictable and consistent.”
The city’s current pre-K system costs about $336 million a year to operate, according to the city Department of Education. Of that, the state supplies about $224 million, mostly going to pay for the more than 26,000 half-day seats currently available. The city contributes $84 million, paying primarily for the current full-day seats, with the federal government paying the remainder, city officials said.
De Blasio wants state officials to let the city raise $340 million per year through taxes, bringing the total to nearly $700 million spent on UPK in the city.
De Blasio has argued that Cuomo's proposal — which would start with $100 million available statewide this year and ramp up over the next four years — is not enough to cover the needs of New York City.
Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, agreed.
"Now, Cuomo is making his promise. I’m not saying he’s not going to do what he’s promised. I’m saying it’s inadequate and too slow," Easton said.
These arguments were echoed by state Education Commissioner John King, who told Albany legislators Jan. 28 that the state's cost estimates were too low to fully support universal pre-K. The state likely needs about $1.6 billion a year in UPK funding, King said, more than the $1.5 billion total over five years offered by Cuomo.
De Blasio said his plan is the only one that will do the job.
“No alternative has been put forward that would actually reach the levels necessary to provide pre-K full-day for every child in this city," de Blasio testified. "This is the only plan that would do that and Commissioner King’s assessment only makes that clearer.”