In the ‘lion’s den,’ De Blasio calls for more pre-K and calls Quinn’s small-business plan a ‘joke’

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Bill de Blasio and Christine Quinn. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Public Advocate Bill de Blasio entered the "lion's den" this morning to unveil an early education plan designed to eclipse a similar plan proposed earlier this year by Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a likely rival in next year's mayoral race.

In a breakfast event in Battery Park City, hosted by the Association for a Better New York, de Blasio contrasted himself with Quinn on a number of issues, but especially on education, where he called for a comprehensive pre-kindergarten plan to be funded by a new tax on wealthy households.

De Blasio, a father of two and former campaign manager for Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, said his plan to enroll as many as 50,000 four-year-olds in pre-kindergarten classes would cost $341.5 million annually, with most of that cost covered by a new 0.44 percent surcharge on households making more than $500,000, to be assessed over five years.

Acknowledging he was in "the lion's den" with talk of taxing the rich, de Blasio told the audience of business executives that he would also ask other New Yorkers to put "skin in the game."

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He described his plan as "truly universal pre-K," and said there were "50,000 kids being underserved" by either part-time or no pre-kindergarten classes. He also proposed an extension of after-school programs for junior high school students, part of what he called a "transformation" of the city's education system.

Earlier this year, Quinn called for a change in state law to lower the age for mandatory kindergarten classes from six years old to five. That change, she said, would force the city to make the necessary seats available. The bill passed the state legislature in June and was signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo in July. The proposal helped cement Quinn's education bona fides; a New York Times story in March (which included a picture of Quinn as a kindergarten student) said she "has emerged as the city’s champion of kindergarten attendance."

But, the article also said, "Ms. Quinn’s proposal would affect only the relatively small number of children who do not already attend kindergarten—estimates range from 3,000 to 6,000 each year—but she said that those children tended to be the ones who needed it most."

De Blasio's plan would do Quinn's one better, by lowering the age to four years old, an expansion that Quinn has also called for in the past.

In 2007, one year after she became the Council Speaker, Quinn said in her State of the City speech, "we won't be satisfied until every family who needs full-day pre-kindergarten can get it." (The following year, The Times ran a story headlined "A Promise for Pre-K for All is Still Far Off in New York," noting the plan was "undermined by state budget problems.")

Also in 2007, Quinn's Middle School Task Force recommended "every middle-grade student have access to after-school programming through expansion of [the Department of Youth and Community Development's] Out-of-School Time Initiative and Beacon programs."

After de Blasio's remarks this morning, NY1's Courtney Gross noted Quinn's record advocating for these proposals "a number of years ago," and asked de Blasio if she deserved some credit for his announcement today.

"I'm not against that there are other people in public life in this city who understand how important a need this is," he sad. "But you got to do something about it. You can't just talk about it and you can't do it incrementally."

I asked de Blasio about the plans to pay for the new classes, and if his reference to "skin in the game" meant future taxes on other New Yorkers.

"The first step, and I think the most readily available step, is revenue from people who have done well: $500,000 and above households," de Blasio said. David Seifman, the City Hall bureau chief for the New York Post, asked, "who are the others with skin in the game?"

"It comes down to the city government itself finding those savings in the [Department of Education] and other agencies," de Blasio said. "And then it comes down to the municipal work force, working with the municipal work force" to find the cost-savings.

De Blasio also needled another possible mayoral candidate, City Comptroller John Liu, saying, "only one percent of our pension investments are spurring on economic growth in New York City. I think that's a mistake. Other states and cities are doing better."

And he got in another jab at Quinn in a response to a question from Assemblyman Micah Kellner about her announcement earlier this week, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that the city would look to ease regulations on small businesses.

"I heard what Mayor Bloomberg and Speaker Quinn said earlier in the week," de Blasio said. "With all due respect to them, that's a joke. That's not a real response."

De Blasio is a strong advocate of the Paid Sick Leave bill, which is opposed by many businesses including, not coincidentally, many small ones. Quinn opposes the current bill and has indicated now is not the time to pass it, because of the economy. 

De Blasio did not make reference to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, or former city comptroller Bill Thompson, who are also expected to join the race.

Earlier this week, Quinn said in a radio interview, "We'll hear about 2013 after the presidential is over." Or sooner, it seems.