logistics of pre-k

In Albany, officials wave pre-K warning flags for New York City

Regent James Tallon, right, talks about the implications of the recently-enacted state budget.

Education officials blasted a state budget deal that green-lit hundreds of millions of dollars for a new pre-kindergarten funding program, but which they said included few safeguards to ensure money will be properly spent.

New legislation requires the State Education Department to distribute $340 million in new funding allocated for pre-K programs, most of which is for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature pre-K expansion plans. But officials said they lack capacity to handle the extra work, mostly because the department received no new money for the job.

“We’re going to make a $340 million investment this year and you don’t need administrative money?” said Regent James Tallon, who chairs the Board of Regents state aid subcommittee. “Come on. That’s not real.”

As a result, New York City might have to handle much of its own oversight, raising new questions about whether the de Blasio administration can smoothly implement plans to add 30,000 full-day pre-K seats before the start of the next school year.

“New York City has ramped up capacity in order to do that, but this is a very large undertaking in a very complicated sector,” said State Education Commissioner John King.

The comments came on Monday morning in Albany at a Board of Regents meeting, the first since lawmakers passed a state budget that allocated $300 million to New York City for pre-K programs and $40 million for other school districts. Chancellor Merryl Tisch said that the department’s lawyers and top education officials have spent weeks pouring over pre-K legislation enacted in the budget, “day and night,” but lots of questions remained unclear.

“Please forgive us if we don’t have answers yet,” Ken Slentz, the deputy commissioner in charge of pre-K education policies, said as the discussion got underway

Despite the uncertainty, the de Blasio administration is plowing ahead with plans to provide over 53,000 full-day seats before the start of the next school year—more than double last year’s total. Tisch said she was concerned the rapid expansion could affect the quality of pre-K programs, which researchers say is most important in early education.

“I just want to remind everyone that if this is not driven by quality that would be tragic,” Tisch told reporters after the meeting.

In response to those concerns, city officials said they’ve been on a staffing spree to build their pre-K implementation team, hiring six people for student recruitment and lining up retired educators to review program applications. More hires are expected in coming months, a spokeswoman said.

“Through the allocation of additional staff and resources, the City is ensuring an effective implementation of universal pre-K that provides a high quality education to four-year-olds across the City,” the spokeswoman, Devora Kaye, said in a statement.

Expanding pre-K was de Blasio’s top campaign pledge and it’s been a singular focus since he took office in January. State lawmakers rejected de Blasio’s bid to fund the expansion through a local income tax, but they allotted most of what he wanted in the state budget.

The state already administers pre-K funds through three existing programs, but lawmakers created a brand new program to disburse the new money. That includes a new application that requires districts to submit all their pre-K providers, along with details about how each program meets standards around teacher certification, curriculum, facilities, and others.

The state also has to establish consistent standards for bi-annual inspections that each program is required to receive. Officials said that will be a challenge since already at least five local and statewide government agencies oversee some kind of pre-K program that could receive new funds. 

The new process could also = lot of new burdens on districts outside of New York City that also that want pre-K, and Regents questioned whether any would go through that trouble before their budgets are due next month.

Officials hedged their criticism by first saying they were heartened to see so much new funding dedicated to a program that Regents had long advocated for. But they questioned what lawmakers were thinking as they devised how the new program would be funded.

“To my [Regents] colleagues, I simply say, the answer to every question is ‘that’s the way they wrote it,'” said Tallon, a former Assembly member, referring to legislation that he said was likely written in the final hours of budget negotiations.

By the numbers

As city gears up for year three of its pre-K expansion, applications hold steady

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

More than 68,000 New York City children applied for full-day pre-K this year, jumpstarting the third year of the city’s expansion, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.

The total number of applications is in line with last year’s total, but the Bronx and Manhattan both saw drops in the number of families that applied. The Bronx had a 5 percent decrease, from 14,280 applications last year to 13,529.

Brooklyn, the borough with the greatest number of families who applied for pre-kindergarten, saw an increase, with 22,046 families applying — up from 21,500 families last year. Staten Island and Queens saw marginal increases.

The number of applications is just shy of de Blasio’s original goal of enrolling 70,000 four-year-olds in pre-K. The city pointed out that the number of applications represents three times the number of children enrolled in full-day pre-K before the expansion started in 2014.

De Blasio’s push for universal pre-K has largely been seen as a success, with seats generally meeting or surpassing quality standards. A recent, limited survey found that families said that pre-K saved them money and helped their children learn.

This year, the city has made a few changes to the application process. The application period opened earlier to give families more time to decide where to apply. Families will also receive offers in early May, a month earlier than last year.

Families who have not yet applied will be able to apply to programs with available seats from May 2 to May 20.

pre-k report card

City touts record 68,500 students in pre-K, releases data on program quality

PHOTO: Rob Bennett/Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio
Mayor Bill de Blasio visits Sunnyside Community Services Pre-K in Queens on March 14, 2014.

The city released new data Friday about the quality of its rapidly expanded pre-kindergarten program, which officials touted as evidence that the program has maintained high standards even as it enrolled nearly 50,000 additional students over the past two years.

With free full-day preschool as the centerpiece of his education agenda, Mayor Bill de Blasio has more than tripled enrollment since he took office — leaving some observers to wonder whether the city was trading quantity of seats for quality. The new data, compiled from reviews of a portion of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites that were conducted from 2012 to the present, shows that the quality of New York’s pre-K program is on par with other cities.

The inspected sites on average met or surpassed the national average on a measure of teacher-student interactions, according to review of 555 cites. On a different measure, 77 percent of reviewed sites earned a 3.4 or above on a 7-point scale, which city officials said is the benchmark that programs must reach to have a positive impact on students.

However, Steven Barnett, a professor at Rutgers who is an expert on preschool programs, said that programs should strive to score a five or higher on that scale. The results are promising, he added, but should be seen as a baseline that the city should improve upon.

“They’re OK, but they’re not nearly as good as they should be five years from now,” he said. “It’s not an overnight process.”

Officials also announced that pre-K enrollment reached over 68,500 — just shy of de Blasio’s goal of 70,000 — and said that a recent crop of new students came primarily from low-income backgrounds. Of the 3,000 students who have enrolled since September, 90 percent live in zip codes with incomes below the city’s median.

The pre-K expansion has been one of de Blasio’s only initiatives to garner positive reviews from most observers.

“We’re proud Pre-K for All is performing on a level with some of the most highly-regarded programs in the nation,” de Blasio said in a statement.

The education department used two observation-based measures for the report.

The first, known as the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, focused on how teachers interact with students. It uses smiling and laughter to gauge school climate and judges the quality of questioning in a class. The second, called the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale, used room set-up and student hygiene, as well as the quality of instruction.

More than 1,000 pre-K programs were evaluated using the second measure in the past three years. On average, they scored 3.9 on the 7-point scale. City officials said a 3.4 is correlated with “improved student outcomes,” including better reading, math, thinking, and social skills.

Barnett, who has studied New Jersey’s celebrated pre-K expansion, said it’s encouraging that categories like “language” and “interaction” were scored higher than “space and furnishings” or “personal care routines.” That implies physical space and classroom routines weighed down the ratings, not teacher instruction, he said.

New York’s scores align with pre-K programs in other cities. New Jersey’s Abbott program scored a 4.0 on the ECERS-R scale in 2002-03, just 0.1 points higher than New York’s rating.

Not all of the city’s 1,800 pre-K sites were evaluated, but soon the city plans to assess all programs. Every three years, each pre-K program should receive both ratings, city officials said.

City officials said they will direct more resources to pre-K programs with low scores on these measures, including extra social workers or more professional development.

They did not offer any specific plans to close struggling pre-K programs based on these observations, though they said that is a possibility in the future. The officials also said they would consider a site’s scores when considering whether to renew providers’ contracts.

For K-12 schools, the city publishes data in annual progress reports for parents. City officials did not say they plan to present pre-K information in a similar way, though all of the data is available on their website.