More districts apply for Cuomo’s pre-K grants, but most still don’t

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Andrew Cuomo at meeting of the Education Reform Commission (AP)
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ALBANY—Only 88 school districts in New York state have applied for Gov. Andrew Cuomo's competitive pre-kindergarten grants, representing about a quarter of the 345 districts that were eligible.

That modest number is an improvement over the number of districts that applied for Cuomo's first round of competitive grants to schools.

Eligibility was based on financial need, and 345 districts could apply of the state's roughly 700. Cuomo has said the program would eventually be available statewide, but given the state's limited resources, it would start with students in the lowest wealth school districts.

Statewide policy groups said the timing of the pre-K grant application process is not ideal. The money wasn't awarded in time for schools to launch new full-day programs or expand half-day programs by the beginning of the academic year. The applications were due to the state Oct. 16.

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“It takes time to review them based on a number of different factors and there are site visits involved,” said Dennis Tompkins, a spokesman for the state education department. “They're not behind; they're right on schedule.”

Robert Lowry, deputy director for the state Council of School Superintendents, said more districts might have applied if winning the grant didn't mean creating a new program while the school year was already underway.

“That's not anyone's fault,” Lowry said. “I don't blame the governor or the Legislature for that. The state adopts a budget in March, and it takes a while to get regulations in place, to get a (request for proposals) out, and for districts to submit. So the districts who will apply, they're saying, we would try to get this program off the ground in the middle of the school year, and that's a challenge.”

Billy Easton, executive director of the labor-funded policy group Alliance for Quality Education, also said schools were concerned about the awkward timing, although the number of applicants shows that there's demand for full-day pre-K programs.

“Originally, there was an expectation that they would get the (request for proposals) out earlier,”  said Easton, whose group has been one of the biggest cheerleaders for pre-K, but also argues the state should invest enough money to provide the program for all students. Cuomo's $25 million will only affect about 2 percent of the state's four-year-olds, according to an AQE report from July.

“It's just too small,” Easton said.

Bill de Blasio, New York City public advocate and the frontrunner in the mayor's race, has made pre-K a top priority. But he proposes funding it through a tax increase on New York City's wealthiest residents, which would require difficult-to-get approval in Albany.

A report last week from the Citizens Budget Commission, a government finance watchdog group, estimated that it would cost an additional $4 billion to the state's education budget to fund pre-K. The state allocated about $21.1 billion to schools this year, including the competitive grants.

Establishing full-day pre-K was a chief recommendation of Cuomo's Education Reform Commission, a panel of experts that reported to the governor in December how to improve student outcomes. Cuomo included $75 million in the budget for reform initiatives, including expanding pre-K as well as creating community schools, extending the school day or year, and rewarding high-performing teachers.

In a previous round of grants that were awarded last school year, 74 districts applied for funds recognizing academic improvement, and the state gave 24 districts about $10.2 million. Thirty-eight districts applied for grants rewarding fiscal efficiency, and 16 districts were awarded about $7.2 million. Four districts won both awards.

The state had allocated $50 million for those grants, but it only awarded $17.4 million. Cuomo's office has said the remaining funds would roll over and be used for future competitive grants. Many districts were not eligible to apply for those awards because they did not yet have state-approved teacher evaluation plans. Critics argue that many schools don't have grant writers or other resources to develop applications; an argument for distributing the funds through the state's funding formula, which they argue would be more equitable.  

Competitive grant programs have been a signature strategy of Cuomo's first term. In addition to schools, he has awarded them to the state's public colleges as well as regional councils that develop economic development strategies.

CLARIFICATION: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that only half the school districts in the state were eligible to apply for the pre-K grants. The numbers in the original version were correct, but were misleading about the percentage of eligible districts that applied.