Why pre-K disagreement matters to WNY - The Buffalo News
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Why pre-K disagreement matters to WNY

ALBANY – It’s hardly a secret that upstate residents have long felt slighted by the state, especially when compared with New York City.

So when the mayor of New York proposes to expand a public education program for his city to be paid solely by some of its residents, an upstate resident might ask: Why should I care?

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan think upstaters should care because it could carve out an important early education learning tool – all-day, pre-kindergarten programs – solely for New York City.

In addition, Albany is a town of long memories, and if de Blasio’s plan – in the form of a home rule request – is denied, that memory could make it harder for upstate communities to get their own home rule requests passed in a State Legislature dominated by New York City lawmakers.

De Blasio says he is willing to alienate some of his city’s wealthiest residents with a special income tax surcharge targeting them to pay for the pre-K, but Cuomo is saying no.

“If it’s a statewide pre-K program, the state should pay,” he said.

Cuomo sees have and have-not consequences.

“Maybe we should let the rich districts have their own (pre-K program) and the poor districts finance their own? No,” Cuomo said, as he pushes his plan for a statewide pre-K funded by the state.

Even if Cuomo’s plan makes it through the Legislature, however, it may have little impact on Western New York school districts, where leaders already are struggling with funding their kindergarten through 12th-grade programs and are concerned about the long-term costs and sustainability of pre-K.

Some New York City lawmakers say no one is standing in the way of a dual system: letting New York City fund its program and allowing the state to fund the rest of the pre-K programs. However, critics say that idea could wreak havoc with the state’s education system, which is already criticized as a system that favors rich over poor districts.

$2 billion bond proposed

Cuomo says the statewide pre-K program will cost the state $1.5 billion. He has proposed a $2 billion bond for voters to consider this fall, some unknown portion of which could go for schools to create more space for pre-K classrooms.

But, some have wondered: Does it make sense for all New York taxpayers to fund a program that could end up sending a large chunk of the resources to New York City, which is willing to raise its own revenues?

Moreover, while Cuomo insists his plan won’t lead to higher state taxes, the money will have to come from somewhere, and he has no legal authority to lock in where future governors or lawmakers can go to pay for a pre-K program.

The de Blasio administration has said Cuomo’s proposed statewide funding level is inadequate to fully cover New York City’s pre-K plan. It also has suggested localities have a mistrust that the state will make good on promises to cover the costs – especially in times of fiscal duress.

The new mayor, who has talked often of the growing inequalities between rich and poor in his city and makes no bones about his core liberal beliefs, wants to hike the city’s own income tax rate from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent on people making over $500,000 a year. That will raise about $500 million annually to pay for both pre-K and after-school programs, he said.

The debate hit high gear the past few days, and on Thursday reporters began receiving a series of seemingly coordinated emails from local officials around the state, including Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster, criticizing the de Blasio plan.

Reducing the pressure

In an interview, Dyster amended his written comments to acknowledge that de Blasio did not say New York City children are more “deserving’’ of a pre-K program. But Dyster said a lot of progressive mayors, like himself, are looking to de Blasio to push certain causes, including pre-K. Having a situation where New York City funds its own pre-K program and the state pays for the rest of the districts reduces the political pressure on the state, he said, to get a statewide program or, if one is passed, to ensure the flow of dollars remains steady over the years. That’s because if New York City funds its own program, it removes the need for the politically potent New York City state legislative delegation to get involved.

“I’d like to have New York City in the fight on the side of universal pre-K,” Dyster said, whose city has 400 kids now in all-day pre-school funded mostly by state money but also with $600,000 in funding by cash-strapped Niagara Falls.

One Buffalo lawmaker, who said her city does not have the same luxury of raising taxes on wealthy people as New York City, favors a statewide approach.

“The fact that we don’t have that option in Buffalo to have a bunch of wealthy people pay for pre-K makes me a little concerned about it. I think we should be looking for ways to offer pre-K on a universal basis across the state,” said Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat.

Waiting list in Buffalo

The Buffalo Public Schools have offered both full-day and half-day programs for decades, and last year applied for state grant to expand its offerings. The district already has 2,055 students in its full-day program, yet still maintains a waiting list of about 200 students.

“I’m glad he has the ability to find ways to take care of the needs of New York City,” Peoples-Stokes said of de Blasio. “But I think ... that excludes people who don’t live in New York City. If we have to give approval to raise the tax then it should be the tax that goes to New York State. Then we can provide universal pre-K to every district that needs it. If we do it his way, then it leaves the rest of us out.”

In general, the state Legislature and governors typically go along with home rule requests that don’t conflict with the state constitution or undermine state law.

A string of these requests flood Albany every two years when counties seek to raise or extend their existing sale tax levels. No county can collect more than 3 percent in local sales taxes without getting approval from the state Legislature and governor.

“I don’t know why suddenly people feel they can’t vote for something that doesn’t affect anybody but the city of New York,” Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, said of opposition by Cuomo and Senate Republicans.

Re-elections loom

Opponents of de Blasio’s plan offer various reasons. For starters, Cuomo and Senate Republicans are trying to sharpen a raise-no-taxes mantra this year, when the governor and all lawmakers are up for re-election.

Lawmakers have also said raising the tax in New York City on rich people could drive some of those people out of the state, or keep others from moving to the city. That, in turn, affects not just the city’s revenues but state tax revenues on everything from income to sales to capital gains.

“It sends the wrong message. New York is already overtaxed, overregulated,” said Sen. George Maziarz, a Newfane Republican.

Proponents of de Blasio’s plan point out that the state already has ways for school districts and other governments to raise taxes.

Sen. Bill Perkins, a Harlem Democrat, pointed to lawmakers’ and Cuomo’s approval of sales tax increases and extensions last year, including for Erie and Niagara counties.

“I’m disappointed because New York City, under home rule, should be able to do the same thing. The mayor is saying we think we have the resources to take care of our kids in a pre-K program, so let us do it,” Perkins said.

As for upstate lawmakers, he said, “It would seem to me they would be supportive of it because it’s not taking anything out of their people’s pockets.”

Voluntary pre-K

This much all agreed upon: Any pre-K program should be voluntary for districts.

Maziarz noted he already is hearing from school district leaders worried that the state might begin paying for a pre-K program and then “pull the rug out” in the years ahead. That would force local property taxpayers to absorb the costs.

Another lawmaker said the de Blasio proposal shines a light on the need to look at disparities in the entire state’s education funding.

Sen. Joseph Griffo, an Oneida County Republican, noted that some schools in his district can’t afford to offer full-day kindergarten, let alone think about a pre-K program that will require more teachers and additional classroom space.

“I understand the importance of early childhood education and pre-K, but if you can’t fund K-12, how are you going to fund pre-K?” Griffo said.

In some Western New York school districts, some leaders are skeptical that Cuomo’s plan will cover the full costs of expanded pre-K.

Most of the Buffalo Niagara’s school districts already offer some form of half-day pre-kindergarten programs, and district leaders are concerned that expanding those to full day – or adding more seats – may not be sustainable in the long run, said Donald Ogilvie, district superintendent of schools for Erie 1 BOCES.

Other options

School leaders are reviewing their options under Cuomo’s plan, but many are concerned they will have to subsidize much of the cost. And school leaders might be hesitant to pick up a new expense when they are already struggling to find money for electives and to maintain lower class sizes.

Some parents, who may feel like they have other options for their children, may not want them in a full-day program.

“The shift to a full-day requirement, or option, will be evaluated not so much for its benefit for students, but what will the per-pupil support be and is it sustainable,” Ogilvie said. “I don’t see them applying for the funding.”

The situation may be somewhat different in urban school systems like Buffalo, where some leaders are even pushing to mandate all 4-year olds attend pre-kindergarten.

Ogilvie also cautioned about jumping to institute a statewide system to keep up with New York City.

“If they want to put in a one-size -fits-all approach, upstate districts are going to end up with things they neither asked for, nor need,” he said.

Providing pre-K

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio have dramatically different approaches

Cuomo’s pre-K plan:

• Would provide $1.5 billion in state funding over five years for statewide program

• Says program can be paid for with existing state resources

• Says de Blasio’s plan would create a “tale of two states” pitting rich against poor communities

De Blasio’s pre-K plan:

• Would hike New York City income tax on people making over $500,000 to raise $5 million a year

• Says he wants a program that can begin this September and doesn’t trust state to keep money flowing in the future

• Says his city can afford to finance its own program; has not said state can’t still go ahead with program for rest of New York

email: tprecious@buffnews.com

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