changing sides

Once a skeptic, Mulgrew endorses Mayor de Blasio’s pre-K tax

Mulgrew alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio this morning at a press conference to announce labor support for his pre-kindergarten tax plan.

For months, United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew withheld his union’s support for Bill de Blasio’s tax hike proposal to fund pre-kindergarten.

Back in August, when Mulgrew was campaigning for de Blasio’s rival Bill Thompson, he argued that the real problem with expanded pre-kindergarten wasn’t the amount of funding, but the way it was targeted. Last month, he said he needed to see the finer details of de Blasio’s plan before throwing his lobbying muscle behind the tax-hike, which is not supported by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Those details still aren’t fleshed out, but Mulgrew said today that he’s seen enough to have been convinced. Standing with a host of other labor leaders at a press conference in a vacant pre-K classroom in East Harlem, Mulgrew pledged to lobby state lawmakers who are showing the same kind of tepid support for de Blasio’s proposal that he once did.

“The nuts  and bolts of this is really what our concern was,” said Mulgrew, who added that a meeting with de Blasio’s staff changed his mind. “You could really tell … that they really have engaged themselves in a meaningful way to try to not just figure out the funding source, but figure out how to make this work for the entire city.”

The union-backed support for de Blasio’s plan could be a big boost for the mayor, who campaigned on a promise to expand full-day pre-kindergarten access to as many as 50,000 children. He spent much of his transition period as the mayor-elect touting the plan and lining up allies to publicly support it.

The tax plan, which would also fund a longer school day for middle school students, taxes New York City residents earning more than $500,000 and would yield an estimated $530 million annually.

The tax hasn’t been embraced by Cuomo, a Democrat, or state Senate Republicans, and they could be hard to sway in an election year where they are stressing efforts to lower the cost-of-living for New Yorkers. Cuomo hammered home that point this morning in a press conference that overlapped with de Blasio’s.

At the press conference, Cuomo said he supported the idea of expanded pre-K, but once again declined to endorse de Blasio’s vision for funding it. Cuomo is scheduled to lay out his legislative agenda for the year on Wednesday when he delivers his fourth state of the state address.

Mulgrew joins a growing list of Democrats to convert from skeptics to supporters of de Blasio’s plan now that the candidate has become mayor. Last month, both state Senator Diane Savino and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten reversed their critiques of de Blasio’s proposal. Like Mulgrew, both had endorsed Bill Thompson during the primary.

In August, just weeks before the primary election, Mulgrew praised Republican state Senator John Flanagan and the rest of the state legislature for providing adequate pre-K funding. But he said that some couldn’t be used because it was designated for half-day seats, an inconvenience for working parents.

“How many millions of dollars are sent back to the state that are allotted for pre-K every year?” Mulgrew said at an August panel, directly addressing Flanagan. “So when everyone talks about expanding it, we’re not even utilizing the very tax dollars that you guys are sending to the districts.”

De Blasio went on to win both the Democratic primary and general election by wide margins, and polls have shown widespread support for his tax plan.

Following Thompson’s loss in the primary, Mulgrew quickly switched the UFT’s endorsement to de Blasio. Mulgrew said that his skepticism about de Blasio’s pre-K proposal was based on decades of promises from politicians to expand pre-K with little to show for it.

“We’ve heard about it for generations and we think we are at a moment in time where we can actually get it done,” Mulgrew said today.

De Blasio said that he had no intentions to back off his proposal once budget negotiations get underway in the coming weeks.

“We will pass this tax in Albany to guarantee full-day pre-K for every child in the city, to guarantee after school for every middle school child,” de Blasio said. “I will repeat it and repeat it and repeat it again until it’s done.”

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.