earliest years

How far from complete are the city's efforts to expand pre-K?

Talking about Barack Obama’s hopes for expanding early childhood education (school for 3- and 4-year-olds) Sam Dillon reports in the Times this morning that, despite efforts to make pre-kindergarten available, New York State’s efforts are “far from complete.” How far? Pretty far. There are two areas to pay attention to: access (how many 4-year-olds are actually enrolled in programs) and quality (are the programs doing real teaching or simply baby-sitting?).

Let’s start with access. New York City advocates told me last year that they estimate demand for pre-kindergarten in the city at about 75,000 4-year-olds. Yet the number of 4-year-olds who are taking part so far this year is 54,000. That represents a steady increase from years past, the Department of Education’s director of early childhood education, Recy B. Dunn, just told me in a telephone interview. But it’s still far away from universal — and it’s also below the number of seats the state agreed to pay for this year, 60,000, a package that would cost just over $230 million, Dunn said. The picture statewide is arguably bleaker. Winnie Hu of the Times reported last year that only 38% of 4-year-olds in the state participated in programs.

The city recently extended the deadline for when parents can sign up to January 30. By that date, Dunn said he hopes to corral more parents into vacancies that exist across the five boroughs (a full list is here), but a last-chance get-out-the-word strategy has yet to be determined. If all 60,000 seats aren’t served, the extra state funds will go back to Albany.

Last year, I outlined several reasons pre-k expansion hasn’t happened faster, most of which have to do with red tape attached to state funds. The state legislature’s funds can only finance half-day programs, which last for only two-and-a-half hours a day, so anyone who wants to offer full-day programs, which advocates say most parents prefer, has to find additional funds. The state funds also can’t go towards start-up costs like building space, another barrier, according to advocates.

And expanding access to pre-K could get tougher given the bleak budget situation. Just yesterday Governor Paterson proposed changing the way the state funds pre-k so that school districts would have to handle a lot of extra costs (about $71 million in New York City), and Mayor Bloomberg’s budget proposal would cut funding from 21 day care centers.

A whole other question is the quality of the programs. Frankly, I have very little sense of this, though my hope this year is to get a better idea. (Readers, this is my e-mail address.) What I do know is that people who know more than I do are concerned about raising the quality of pre-K. Sara Mead at New America has cautioned Obama against writing a stimulus package for early childhood without thinking about quality. The Hechinger Institute has chronicled the concerns here. And a report (PDF) issued by the American Federation of Teachers last week offered suggestions for how to make pre-K more educational and more playful at the same time, improving the quality beyond simple day-care.

One thing that makes looking at quality difficult is the overwhelming diversity of free government-provided programs. In the city as across the country, free pre-K comes in a patchwork of forms, with no single agency held responsible for producing the programs, no clear funding stream laid out how to pay for it, and no blueprint for what the programs should look like. Parents can apply to a half-day (2.5 hour) program, the only kind the state funds, or they can also apply for a 6-hour full-day program, which exist only because other groups add to state funds. Some programs are hosted at public schools. Others are based out of one of dozens of community-based organizations scattered around the city, from church basements to storefront child-care providers.

Like I said, I want to look more closely at this. So, readers, please give suggestions. What pre-K programs should we be visiting?


Newark schools would get $37.5 million boost under Gov. Murphy’s budget plan

PHOTO: OIT/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy gave his first budget address on Tuesday.

Newark just got some good news: Gov. Phil Murphy wants to give its schools their biggest budget increase since 2011.

State funding for the district would grow by 5 percent — or $37.5 million — next school year under Murphy’s budget plan, according to state figures released Thursday. Overall, state aid for K-12 education in Newark would rise to $787.6 million for the 2018-19 school year.

The funding boost could ease financial strain on the district, which has faced large deficits in recent years as more students enroll in charter schools — taking a growing chunk of district money with them. At the same time, the district faced years of flat funding from the state, which provides Newark with most of its education money.

“This increase begins to restore the deep cuts made to teaching and support staff and essential programs for students in district schools over the last seven years,” said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, who noted that a portion of the increase would go to Newark charter schools.

Newark’s boost is part of a nearly $284 million increase that Murphy is proposing for the state’s school-aid formula, which has not been properly funded since 2009. In the budget outline he released Tuesday, Murphy said the increase was the first installment in a four-year plan to fully fund the formula, which calls for about $1 billion more than the state currently spends on education.

Even with Murphy’s proposed boost, Newark’s state aid would still be about 14 percent less than what it’s entitled to under the formula, according to state projections.

Murphy, a Democrat, is counting on a series of tax hikes and other revenue sources — including legalized marijuana — to pay for his budget, which increases state spending by 4.2 percent over this fiscal year. He’ll need the support of his fellow Democrats who control the state legislature to pass those measures, but some have expressed concerns about parts of Murphy’s plan — in particular, his proposal to raise taxes on millionaires. They have until June 30 to agree on a budget.

In the meantime, Newark and other school districts will use the figures from Murphy’s plan to create preliminary budgets by the end of this month. They can revise their budgets later if the state’s final budget differs from Murphy’s outline.

At a school board meeting Tuesday before districts received their state-aid estimates, Interim Superintendent Robert Gregory said he had traveled to Trenton in December to tell members of Murphy’s team that the district was “running out of things to do” to close its budget gap. He said the district wasn’t expecting to immediately receive the full $140 million that it’s owed under the state formula. But Murphy’s plan suggested the governor would eventually send Newark the full amount.

“The governor’s address offers a promising sign,” Gregory said.

Civics lesson

With district’s blessing, Newark students join national school walkout against gun violence

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Thousands of Newark students walked out of their schools Wednesday morning in a district-sanctioned protest that was part of a nationwide action calling for an end to gun violence.

At Barringer Academy of the Arts and Humanities in the North Ward, students gathered in the schoolyard alongside Mayor Ras Baraka and interim schools chief Robert Gregory, who offered support to the protesters and even distributed a “student protest week” curriculum to schools.

Just after 10 a.m., hundreds of students watched in silence as a group of their classmates stood in a row and released one orange balloon every minute for 17 minutes — a tribute to the 17 people fatally shot inside a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

While the Barringer students and faculty mourned those victims they had never met, they also decried gun violence much closer to home: siblings and relatives who had been shot, times they were threatened with guns on the street. Principal Kimberly Honnick asked the crowd to remember Malik Bullock, who was a 16-year-old junior at Barringer when he was shot to death in the South Ward last April.

“Too many lives have been lost way too soon,” she said. “It is time for us to end the violence in our schools.”

School districts across the country have grappled with how to respond to walkouts, which were scheduled to occur at 10 a.m. in hundreds of schools. The student-led action, which was planned in the wake of the Florida mass shooting, is intended to pressure Congress to enact stricter gun laws.

Officials in some districts — including some in New Jersey — reportedly threatened to punish students who joined in the protest. But in Newark, officials embraced the event as a civics lesson for students and a necessary reminder to lawmakers that gun violence is not limited to headline-grabbing tragedies like the one in Parkland — for young people in many cities, it’s a fact of life.

“If there’s any group of people that should be opposed to the amount of guns that reach into our communities, it’s us,” Baraka said, adding that Newark police take over 500 guns off the street each year. “People in cities like Newark, New Jersey — cities that are predominantly filled with black and brown individuals who become victims of gun violence.”

On Friday, Gregory sent families a letter saying that the district was committed to keeping students safe in the wake of the Florida shooting. All school staff will receive training in the coming weeks on topics including “active shooter drills” and evacuation procedures, the letter said.

But the note also said the district wanted to support “students’ right to make their voices heard on this important issue.” Schools were sent a curriculum for this week with suggested lessons on youth activism and the gun-control debate. While students were free to opt out of Wednesday’s protests, high schools were expected to allow students to walk out of their buildings at the designated time while middle schools were encouraged to organize indoor events.

In an interview, Gregory said gun violence in Newark is not confined to mass shootings: At least one student here is killed in a shooting each year, he said — though there have not been any so far this year. Rather than accept such violence as inevitable, Gregory said schools should teach students that they have the power to collectively push for changes — even if that means letting them walk out of class.

“Instead of trying of trying to resist it, we wanted to encourage it,” he said. “That’s what makes America what it is.”

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Students released one balloon for each of the 17 people killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida last month.

After Barringer’s protest, where people waved signs saying “Love,” “Enough,” and “No to gun violence, several ninth-graders described what it’s like to live in communities where guns are prevalent — despite New Jersey’s tight gun restrictions.

Jason Inoa said he was held up by someone claiming to have a gun as he walked home. Destiny Muñoz said her older brother was shot by a police officer while a cousin was recently gunned down in Florida. The Parkland massacre only compounded her fear that nowhere is safe.

“With school shootings, you feel terrified,” she said. “You feel the same way you do about being outside in the streets.”

Even as the students called for tougher gun laws, they were ambivalent about bringing more police into their schools and neighborhoods. They noted that the Black Lives Matter movement, which they said they recently read about in their freshmen social studies class, called attention to black and Hispanic people who were treated harshly or even killed by police officers.

Ninth-grader Malik Bolding said it’s important to honor the victims of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida. But the country should also mourn the people who are killed in everyday gun violence and heed the protesters who are calling for it to end, he added.

“Gun violence is gun violence — it doesn’t matter who got shot,” he said. “Everybody should be heard.”