Still Waiting

De Blasio speech repeats pre-K plan but offers few new details

Bill de Blasio reiterated his plan to fund new preschool and after-school programs with a tax hike on high-income earners. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Barroso, Columbia University)
Bill de Blasio reiterated his plan to fund new preschool and after-school programs with a tax hike on high-income earners. (Photo courtesy of Eileen Barroso, Columbia University)

In his first major post-election speech, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio argued Monday that his wide electoral victory amounts to a mandate to curb inequality by expanding the city’s pre-Kindergarten and after-school programs through a tax hike on the wealthy.

But beyond announcing the formation of an “early-education working group” to hash out the details of the expansion, which he said he wants to begin rolling out next school year, de Blasio offered few new details about his central campaign pledge.

Instead, he repeated his plan and said that it is gaining support from lawmakers in Albany, who must approve it – even as former mayor David Dinkins suggested to de Blasio, his one-time aide, that he reconsider the income-tax hike.

“I have offered a game-changing investment in early-childhood education and after-school,” de Blasio said in his keynote speech at a summit on children hosted by the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “Nothing less will do.”

In a press conference after the speech, De Blasio declined to name candidates he is considering for schools chancellor, but said he may have more information “in a couple more days down the road.” He also did not name the members of the working group.

Some observers quickly pointed out that de Blasio, who will take office in January – midway through the school year – left many questions about his signature proposal unanswered.

Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, said de Blasio had yet to detail where he would find space to provide full-day preschool to nearly 50,000 more four-year-olds or how he would train enough educators to teach them.

“I would have liked to have heard more,” Noguera said, though he added that these are “big, complex issues” that take time to resolve.

Key state legislators – including the senate co-leader, Democrat Jeffrey Klein – have recently endorsed de Blasio’s plan to raise the income tax of city residents earning more than $500,000 a year, but Senate Republicans and Governor Cuomo will be harder to convince, analysts say.

Cuomo “doesn’t want to go into an election year as a Democrat who raised taxes,” said Michael Benjamin, a political consultant and former Democratic assemblyman. He said insiders have suggested that Cuomo may try to find a different revenue stream for the plan before November’s state elections, after which he might reconsider a tax bump.

Ex-mayor David Dinkins suggested that de Blasio, his former aide, reconsider his proposed tax on the wealthy.
Ex-mayor David Dinkins suggested that de Blasio, his former aide, reconsider his proposed tax on the wealthy.

But de Blasio told reporters his tax plan is the best and fastest way to fund the school programs and said “more and more people who matter” are backing it.

He said he aimed to “win this tax fight by April 1” – the start of the state’s fiscal year – and then begin running the expanded programs later in 2014. He acknowledged that preschool space is limited, but said possible solutions include grouping multiple programs into existing pre-K centers or converting other buildings for that use, including former Catholic schools.

He also hailed a new Bloomberg administration pilot program that pairs middle schools with nonprofits to extend the school day by nearly three hours as a model after-school program. And he plugged community schools, which enlist private partners to offer an array of on-site services for students and families – a model favored by the city teachers union, which de Blasio has said he wants to expand from the current 16 schools to 100 schools.

Immediately after de Blasio made his remarks Monday afternoon, in which he had praised Dinkins, his former boss, the forum’s moderator invited Dinkins to ask de Blasio a question. Dinkins used the opportunity to suggest that the mayor-elect push for a so-called commuter tax on people who work in the city but live outside it, which he said might face less resistance in Albany.

“See whether or not this might be more easily done than to put a tax on the wealthy to take care of the rest of us,” Dinkins proposed.

But de Blasio balked at the idea, responding that his tax on high earners “is the right path and an attainable path.”

crunching numbers

Full-day kindergarten among possible budget cuts in Aurora

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A kindergarten teacher at Kenton Elementary in Aurora helps a student practice saying and writing numbers on a Thursday afternoon in February.

Kindergarteners in Aurora’s Kenton Elementary spent an afternoon last week playing math games. Some kids built towers that had to be exactly 20 blocks high. One boy played a game on a laptop doing simple addition. Across the room, the teacher sat with a girl who was counting blocks aloud and practicing writing.

More than halfway through the year, the four and five-year-olds are able to recognize numbers through 50 or even through 100, Kenton officials said.

Now, as Aurora Public Schools searches for ways to cut its 2017-18 budget, free full-day kindergarten like Kenton’s is among one of scores of programs that could fall victim.

“It’s a concern for all of us,” said Heather Woodward, Kenton Elementary’s principal.

Scaling full-day kindergarten back to a half day was one scenario district officials floated when asking for community input on what to prioritize. District officials have said they are not ready to take anything off the table in trying to trim next year’s budget by an estimated $31 million.

Exact cuts will depend on state funding, which won’t be finalized until later this spring, and on how much the district can save through administrative changes like negotiating different health plans for employees. Patti Moon, a district spokeswoman, said cuts could still be presented later this spring.

Earlier this year, the district presented more than 40 budget-cutting ideas at public meetings and through a request for online feedback. The ideas included adding furlough days, cutting middle school sports and changing school schedules. Changing kindergarten to half-day would save the district an estimated $4.9 million.

But the idea got significant pushback. One of the common messages from those who provided the district feedback asked to avoid cutting full-day kindergarten.

“Our Kindergarten students are required to learn a large amount of information by the end of the year,” one response stated. “It’s very hard to get these students to where they are required to be even with a full day of instruction. Taking away a half day of instruction would be a huge injustice to these students.”

The first known budget cut in Aurora will likely come from a decrease in school staff by increasing the ratio of students to staff. Superintendent Rico Munn is scheduled to ask the Aurora school board Tuesday night for guidance on how much to increase the ratios per school.

A final staffing recommendation will be part of the draft budget presented in April.

In Aurora schools, kindergarteners get a daily math lesson in addition to at least an hour of reading or writing, a period of language development and 50 minutes of either art, music, technology or physical education.

Judith Padilla, a mother of three children in Aurora, is adamantly opposed to cutting full-day kindergarten.

“There would be a tremendous impact for parents who have to work,” Padilla said. “For my son it was a great benefit to be in kindergarten a full day so he could develop. He had some learning problems and some language problems and he had special classes to help him learn things like holding a pencil. Now they say he is at his level.”

Woodward, the Kenton principal, said making sure kids leave kindergarten on track to reading by third grade, and to be proficient in English so that they can learn in all their classes, are two major goals for educators.

For kids who leave kindergarten already behind, “we know there’s going to be a continual gap moving forward,” she said.

Bruce Atchison, director of early learning instruction for the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, said his team is doing research on how to get more children to reading proficiency at the end of third grade. Having high-quality full-day kindergarten emerged as one of six policies considered effective for reaching that goal.

“It’s probably the most significant issue for education policy makers,” Atchison said. “Policy makers are typically aware of the abysmal reading proficiency rates across the country. It’s 41 percent of low-income children still are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. That’s a huge issue.”

In Aurora, 45 percent of kindergarteners are English language learners, and 70 percent or kindergarteners qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a common measure of poverty.

According to 2016 state data, 18.6 percent of Aurora third graders met or exceeded expectations on reading tests compared to 37.4 percent of third graders across Colorado.

In Colorado, the state only pays districts for about a half-day of kindergarten. Districts can choose to pay for the rest, or offer it to families for a fee. In Aurora, the district made full-day kindergarten free for all students after voters approved an increase in taxes in 2008.

Patrick Hogarty, an Aurora teacher and elected delegate for the Colorado Education Association, said even at higher grade levels, teachers are concerned about the lasting impact the kindergarten cuts would have.

“It would be basically catastrophic due to the learning these children need to have,” Hogarty said. “It’s sometimes almost impossible for students to catch up to as they progress through the levels of education.”

In the last few years, districts in Colorado and across the country have moved to add full-day kindergarten programs.

In 2007, about 40 percent of Colorado kids enrolled in full-day kindergarten, according to Atchison. That percentage is now up to 77 percent.

“Districts, principals, education leaders are seeing the advantages of full-day kindergarten,” Atchison said.

The challenge for those that haven’t added the programs is usually the money.

“You are hard-pressed to find policy makers who don’t want full-day programs,” Atchison said. “They understand that children benefit from full day kindergarten programs, but it really comes down to the funding issues.”

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director