Early Childhood

Amid questions over new transit program, de Blasio downplays challenges of rolling out universal pre-K

PHOTO: Chalkbeat/Christina Veiga
All New York City four year-olds — including these kids who attend school is in the city's education department headquarters — are guaranteed a spot in a city-funded pre-K.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio launched universal pre-K in 2014, he said it had “taken the dedication of an untold number” of supporters and that his administration had “pushed so hard” to make it happen.

But on Friday, he appeared to downplay his signature education achievement as he faced questions about why the rollout of a new low-income transit program, called Fair Fares, went over its Jan. 1 launch date and won’t be immediately accessible to every low-income New Yorker.

“When we came in, there were about 20,000 kids in full-day pre-K,” de Blasio said when a reporter asked him how his administration was able to roll out the “massive” universal pre-K program in under a year.

“Over a two-year timeline we got it up to 70,000, but it was based on an existing application and the parameters were already known,” he said.

His comments raised eyebrows as observers noted how massive a lift universal pre-K required.

Fair Fares, de Blasio said, is a brand-new program and important details had to be hammered out — like determining the parameters and rooting out potential fraud by making sure the program reaches those who are eligible.

“There were a lot of things we had to put into place that were from scratch that just weren’t true with a program like Pre-K,” de Blasio said.

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson added that Fair Fares could potentially reach 800,000 people — far greater than the 70,000 children who are enrolled in universal pre-K.

De Blasio’s downplaying of the pre-K rollout stands in stark contrast with his past language. When de Blasio’s administration officially expanded pre-K, officials described the move as monumental — “the largest and most ambitious expansion of pre-K of any city in the nation’s history.”

Within nine months of expansion efforts launching, about 31,500 four-year-olds were registered for pre-K programs — a little more than the number of New Yorkers who will have first access to half-priced Metro cards under Fair Fares after six months of work.

Also in that nine-month timeframe, 1,655 public schools and community-based early childhood centers were ready to provide pre-K programs with 1,000 new pre-K lead teachers, according to the city’s announcement in 2014. Fire, health, buildings, and education officials conducted inspections and site visits to 6,000 pre-K centers the summer before the September 2014 launch.

The de Blasio administration is continuing to expand pre-school for three-year-olds and plans to offer it through a dozen districts by 2020.

all aboard

Colorado’s top education officials support Gov. Polis’ full-day kindergarten proposal

PHOTO: Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sophia Camacena sits with classmates in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy in Denver on Aug. 15, 2018.

The Colorado State Board of Education has put its support behind a proposal for the state to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten.

Gov. Jared Polis campaigned on this plan, and earlier this week, he announced that he could pay for it without cutting other programs because local property taxes are bringing in more revenue, freeing up money at the state level.

In a press release, the State Board of Education, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, said it had adopted a resolution in support of that plan.

“We know that high-quality kindergarten programs can help us close opportunity and achievement gaps and ensure that all students have a strong foundation for success throughout their school years,” board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said in the release.

Vice Chair Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican, said leveraging the strong economy to pay for kindergarten is the right approach.

“The proposal doesn’t create a new mandate for districts or for parents, but it enables districts to offer free, full-day kindergarten for all, and it will help ensure all students are on the path to success,” Durham said.

Right now, about 50,000 students attend full-day programs and another 13,000 attend half-day programs. Many districts charge tuition for the extra half-day — the governor’s office estimates at least 30,000 families pay hundreds of dollars a month, though the state education department doesn’t track this — while others use a combination of federal money for high-poverty schools, state funds to support early literacy, dedicated local taxes, and their own operating funds to cover the cost.

When Polis announced the plan, key Democratic lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee raised concerns about using so much additional revenue for kindergarten when there are other needs, particularly transportation. Polis estimates paying for kindergarten will cost an additional $227 million a year, plus a one-time $25 million expenditure for implementation costs such as  curriculum and supplies.

“The governor’s budget doesn’t really touch on transportation, for example,” Joint Budget Committee Chairman Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, told The Denver Post. “And that’s something we’ve heard loud and clear from our constituents — that they are tired of sitting in traffic. They want better infrastructure.”

But on Wednesday, when Polis formally presented his budget requests to the committee, those same lawmaker asked no questions and later issued official statements that indicated support for kindergarten, even as they included a few caveats about long-term fiscal responsibility.

“After meeting with Gov. Polis to learn more about his budget proposal, I believe his ideas are a solid blueprint which we can build upon for our next budget,” Moreno said in a press release.  “I look forward to continued conversations between the JBC and the governor to see how we can best fulfill these requests and fund these programs in the long-term.”

Early Education 101

Here’s how Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids advocates are trying to put early childhood education on the state policy agenda in Lansing

PHOTO: Getty Images

With scores of new Michigan lawmakers sworn in this month, and new leadership taking shape in Lansing, parents and advocates from across the state are ramping up efforts to put the needs of the state’s youngest children on the political agenda.

Parents from Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids plan to converge on the capitol next week for an “Early Education 101” session with lawmakers that organizers say is the first significant early-childhood event to be held in the capitol in about a decade.

“We decided to do this together so that we can speak with a collective voice,” said Denise Smith, who heads the Flint early childhood collaborative and runs an early childhood center called Educare Flint. “These are not just Detroit or Flint concerns.”

Organized advocacy like this has long been common in Michigan when it comes to K-12 education. Lansing veterans are used to seeing busloads of parents arrive to push for funding or policy changes. But early childhood education advocates haven’t invested the resources to organize events like these in recent years.

Advocates hope that next week’s event will to put the needs of young children and their parents on the radar of lawmakers  as the process for thinking about policy and budget priorities for the upcoming legislative session begins.

Among major concerns for parents across the state is a third-grade reading law that, starting next year, will require schools to hold back students who aren’t reading at grade level by the third grade.

Elementary schools have been working to ramp up their reading instruction, but advocates say the work has to begin much earlier, starting with getting children ready for school when they’re babies or toddlers.

“We need to have the resources and the other investments in early childhood so we can insure that fewer children will be retained,” Smith said.

One of the efforts behind the event is the Hope Starts Here initiative in Detroit, which is a $50 million campaign led by the Kresge and W.K. Kellogg foundations to improve the lives of the city’s youngest children. (Kresge and Kellogg also support Chalkbeat. Read our code of ethics here).

Hope Starts Here has brought parents, advocates, educators, and others together in Detroit to set priorities, such as making early childhood programs more affordable, improving their quality and expanding their reach.

“We have a lot of momentum right now,” said Camarrah Morgan, who is helping to lead community engagement and advocacy efforts for Hope Starts Here.

It’s not just parents and educators pushing the cause, she said. “We have corporate partners at the state level who are advocating for child care because they’re trying to recruit and retain workers … This is about helping policymakers understand why childcare is important.”

Organizers say that 165 lawmakers or members of their staffs have signed up for the Jan. 22 “lunch and learn” event in Lansing, including new and returning officials. There also will be 75 parents from across the state.

The parents will be learning too, said Felicia Cash, a parent and community advocate from Detroit’s east side who plans to participate.

“Success would be the parents being fired up once we come back,” Cash said. “It can’t just be a one-time event. We have to have the energy and the perseverance to continue lobbying, to continue writing, to continue having town hall meetings here in the city, to return back to Lansing. This is our voices being lifted up, our voices being taken seriously.”