A Cuomo plan to fund pre-K, preempt mayor

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Andrew Cuomo. (Governor Andrew Cuomo)
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ALBANY—Gov. Andrew Cuomo will propose funding full-day pre-kindergarten statewide, according to sources briefed on the governor's preparation for his State of the State address this week.

The pre-K plan could serve to defuse a potentially awkward political situation for Cuomo, whose pledge to pursue tax cuts has put him on a potential collision course with newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio's signature proposal is a universal pre-K plan funded by a tax hike on high-earning city residents. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate co-majority leader Jeffrey Klein support the de Blasio plan. The Senate's Republican leadership supports at least the idea of pre-K, but not the tax increase the mayor's plan calls for.

A Cuomo announcement that he will fund the pre-K proposal in the state's $140 billion budget would force de Blasio either to accept the governor's plan instead of his own or to continue to push for the tax even though a key part of his goal had very conspicuously been met without it.

A spokesman for Cuomo declined to comment.

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(UPDATE: At a press conference in the Capitol today, Cuomo declined to discuss details of his plan, but denied that he would address pre-K funding in the State of the State.)

One source said Cuomo would allocate $250 million for pre-K. Another source with knowledge of the proposal didn't quote an amount, but said it would be a “real number.”

The state Board of Regents proposed allocating $125 million for pre-K in its budget proposal, which asked for a $1.3 billion increase over the current fiscal year's funding level. Alliance for Quality Education, a labor-backed advocacy group, pushed Cuomo for $225 million to fund pre-K (on top of de Blasio's plan). The group and New York State United Teachers, a statewide union, are requesting a $1.9 billion increase.

The state already allocates about $400 million for pre-K, which serves fewer than half of the state's four-year-olds, many in half-day programs.

Estimates for how much it would cost to fund pre-K statewide vary significantly. For example, the Citizens Budget Commission, a government finance watchdog, released a report in October that projected a $4 billion price tag for statewide pre-K.

Cuomo and the state Education Department recently awarded competitive grant funding to launch or expand pre-K programs in 27 school districts, which will allow thousands more students to begin full-day programs throughout the state. New York City and Rochester received the biggest grants, at nearly $10 million each on a conditional annual basis.

The money was part of a $75 million package of competitive grants that Cuomo unveiled in his State of the State address last year, including $25 million for pre-K.

Some education advocates have blasted Cuomo's competitive grants because they are limited in scope and inherently unsustainable. Funding pre-K for all schools in the budget would circumvent both arguments.

About half of the state's nearly 700 school districts were eligible to apply for the pre-K grants, and only a quarter of those submitted applications. One explanation for the low participation is that schools don't want to create full-day pre-K programs they'll have to dismantle when the money runs out.

Cuomo is also expected to propose additional funding for professional development to help teachers who are struggling with the new, more rigorous Common Core standards, a source said. Both the Regents and the Senate's education committee chairman have pushed for the professional development funds.

Cuomo has said he will increase overall state aid for education, suggesting at a cabinet meeting last month that the increase might be “close to 5 percent,” which would break a self-imposed spending cap, Capital has reported. State aid to schools this fiscal year was about $21 billion.

On Sunday, Klein and State Senator Diane Savino, a fellow member of the Independent Democratic Conference, advocated for Cuomo to support de Blasio's plan for funding pre-K. Klein released a report arguing that New York City would see a $3.7 billion return on its investment in early childhood programs.