During hearing, de Blasio's pre-K gatekeepers scrutinize his plan

ALBANY — The gatekeepers who stand in the way of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top priority — overhauling the city’s pre-kindergarten services and lengthening the middle school day — got their most prominent chance yet today to publicly scrutinize, praise and denounce the details of his plan.

In more than two hours of testimony this morning, state lawmakers lobbed a range of questions about his proposal, which he wants to fund with a local income tax hike and begin implementing immediately. Just 20,000 city 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in full-day pre-K programs, and de Blasio believes the city can more than triple that number in less than two years.

Lawmakers wanted to know why de Blasio needed new taxes to pay for something that could be covered by the state, pointing to an alternative funding proposal that Gov. Andrew Cuomo floated last week. Several asked why charter schools have been absent from the proposal’s details, with a Bronx senator threatening to withhold his support over the issue.

And some fretted about de Blasio’s ambitious implementation schedule. New details of his plan, released this morning, estimate that the city is prepared to create or renovate enough space and hire enough new teachers to bring full-day pre-K programs to an additional 55,000 students between now and the start of the 2015-2016 school year.

“We’re a little gun shy up here when it comes to the rollout of educational things over the last couple of months and years,” said Michael Cusik, a Democratic Assemblyman from Staten Island, alluding to the state’s bumpy implementation of Common Core standards and new teacher evaluations. “So I think a lot of the questions are based on implementation of these plans that you put forward.”

De Blasio argued that any challenge standing in the way of his plan paled in comparison to the educational “crisis” facing New York City’s schools. As evidence, he repeatedly cited a New York Times editorial that included the long-reported data point that three-quarters of city students lack the skills necessary to take college-level classes after four years of high school. 

“We are in the midst of an inequality crisis,” de Blasio said, echoing the progressive theme that he campaigned on during in the mayoral race last year. (De Blasio did not comment on the main point of the Times editorial, which was about preserving Mayor Bloomberg’s school evaluation system.)

De Blasio’s inaugural venture to the joint legislative budget hearing was an unusual one. Typically, local government leaders and others use the annual hearings to make their respective cases for more money in the state budget.

But de Blasio delivered the opposite message to lawmakers, saying he didn’t need the state’s money to fulfill his pre-K plan. He only needs the vote of approval required any time a local municipality wants to raise local taxes. De Blasio’s tax hike would target city residents who earn over $500,000.

“We’re not asking Albany to raise the state income tax by a single penny to pay for universal pre-K and after-school programs in New York City,” said de Blasio, debunking what he called a “myth” that had proliferated in the debate over how to fund his plan. Cuomo has proposed a less expensive state-funded plan that he says would draw on existing funds.

Some lawmakers wholeheartedly endorsed de Blasio’s proposal. Staten Island Democratic Senator Diane Savino said Cuomo’s alternative funding plan would not begin to equal the costs of what the city says is needed to fulfill its expanded pre-K and after-school programs. She also noted that it was not unusual for the legislature to approve municipalities’ proposals for local tax hikes.

“It is not uncommon for local elected bodies to come to the legislature with a local request to establish a funding stream just for their locality,” said Savino, noting that the Senate was expected to pass five such measures in its session today.

But there was also plenty of skepticism about de Blasio’s proposal from both Democrats and Republicans, and from lawmakers both inside and outside of the city. While no one took issue with the idea of expanding access to pre-K, they critiqued de Blasio’s implementation plans.

“My concern simply revolved around maybe biting off more than we can chew right away,” said William Magnarelli, a Democratic Assemblyman from Syracuse.

There are “areas of government where I couldn’t agree with you more,” de Blasio responded. But he said his plan can handle an aggressive implementation schedule because it is based on “powerful existing models for pre-K and for after school.”

And de Blasio faced pushback around his omission of any mention of the role of charter schools in his plan.

“Your idea of pre-K is great, but it has to include charter schools,” said Sen. Ruben Diaz, Jr., a Democrat from the Bronx, adding that he’d side with Cuomo’s funding proposal, which includes funding access for charter schools. “That would be one of the things that will [help] me make up my mind on how to vote and which plan to support.”

Including charter schools in any pre-K expansion is a sentiment that other minority lawmakers said in interviews they agreed with, including Assembly member Karim Camara and Senator Kevin Parker, both of whom represent districts in Brooklyn.

An exception was State Sen. Bill Perkins, of Harlem, who said he hoped that any final plan would block charter schools from receiving state pre-K funds, as is currently the case. Perkins has been a consistent critic of charter schools for years.

De Blasio dodged questions about whether he supports a change in state law that would make it easier for charter schools to access pre-K funds. He repeated that he was open to the idea, but also said that some organizations, naming Harlem Children’s Zone in particular, already had models that effectively managed charter schools and pre-K programs as separate, but affiliated entities.

After the testimony, de Blasio sat next to Cuomo at a press conference about the grim finances of status of Brooklyn’s hospitals, during which they projected a united front. But questions quickly turned to their strategies for expanding pre-K programs.

“It’s about the money,” Cuomo said. “It’s about the money.”

De Blasio immediately responded, “It’s an ongoing dialogue. It’s an ongoing dialogue.”