the path to pre-k

Cuomo commission endorses charter schools for pre-K

The city's charter school sector rallied last year to oppose Mayor Bill de Blasio's plan to charge rent to charter schools. The sector also called for the right to operate pre-kindegarten programs, a request that got a boost today from a state education policy commission.

Charter schools offer “untapped potential” in the effort to expand pre-kindergarten for poor students, a team of advisors for Gov. Andrew Cuomo conclude in a report released today.

Current state law prohibits those schools from tapping into state pre-K funds, a hurdle that Cuomo’s advisors want lifted in order to fulfill his vision for expanded access to early education. Charter school advocates lobbied for a pre-K funding bill last year, but their request went nowhere at the time.

The proposal is one of six recommendations that made it into a final report published today by the New York State Education Reform Commission, a “blue ribbon” group convened nearly two years ago at Cuomo’s request. Cuomo used policy proposals from the commission’s preliminary report last year to steer his 2013 education agenda — and he indicated today that the latest version would guide him again this year.

The charter school pre-K proposal was one of the only surprises in the final report, which mostly echoed the preliminary findings and priorities that Cuomo has set out over the last year. Some of the report’s recommendations, including to ramp up the state’s investment in school technology and give financial incentives for top teachers to take on tougher jobs, were keynote education proposals in Cuomo’s State of the State speech last week. The governor has been talking about others, such as expanding high school programs that are connected to colleges, for far longer.

In a statement, Cuomo praised the commission’s report, but stopped short of endorsing the pre-K proposal.

“These are some of the essential steps that we must take to provide New York’s children with the education they deserve, and I look forward to implementing them in the future,” he said.

The report was criticized by some of the commission’s own members, including AFT President Randi Weingarten and Michael Rebell, a leading advocate for equitable state aid funding. Written responses attached at the end of the report detail what they see as the commission’s shortcomings, including the absence of any mention of state school aid cuts. Rebell and Weingarten also raised concerns that the report neglected to address more recent issues with the state’s implementation of the Common Core learning standards and teacher evaluations.

The pre-K recommendation comes at the start of a legislative session where pre-kindergarten policy and funding promise to be hotly negotiated issues. Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio both support expanding full-day universal pre-kindergarten, but they are at odds over how it should be paid for.

De Blasio wants to fund his plan through a locally funded income tax, which needs approval from Cuomo and the legislature. In August, de Blasio told Chalkbeat he didn’t think charters should operate pre-K programs. A spokesman did not respond to requests for comment about the commission’s report.

Cuomo has so far been mum about how he’d fund his plan, other than to say he prefers a state-funded solution to local taxes. The commission’s report doesn’t include any more details, but its nod to charter schools as part of any state-funded pre-K expansion is a glimpse at the framework of what Cuomo could bring to the negotiating table during budget talks this year. 

City regulations permit charter schools to offer educational services to students as young as three years old. But since state charter law defines charter schools as schools serving students in kindergarten and up, they are disqualified from receiving any of the nearly $400 million doled out annually for state pre-K funds. 

Some organizations that run charter schools in New York City, such as Children’s Aid Society and Harlem Children’s Zone, also serve pre-K students, but are required to do so through a separate program.  

“New York is the only state I know where this specific issue actually bars charters from offering pre-k,” said Sara Mead, an early education policy analyst and a member of the commission.

Nationally, most of the 391 charter schools that enroll pre-K students are clustered in two states — Texas and Florida — and Washington, D.C., according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. (Another 21 states have at least one charter school with a pre-K grade.)

Mead said funding formulas in most states make it difficult for charter schools to become pre-K providers.

“The specific issues vary from state to state, but the underlying issue is that, in contrast to the public school system, pre-K remains in most states a program that is not well-integrated with the existing K-12 school system and funding formulas and thus has different rules, different eligibility criteria, and different ways to access funding,” Mead wrote in an email.

Charter school advocates praised the reform commission’s recommendation. New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman said charter schools were “a natural partner” for efforts to improve the quality of pre-K programs, whose standards range widely from one provider to the next.

“An effective pre-K expansion isn’t just about opening up more seats, but about creating high-quality ones that will give children the leg up they need,” Merriman said in a statement.

On average, New York City charter schools boast higher test scores than nearby districts schools and they are in high-demand from parents. But many don’t enroll as many high-need students as other schools in their district, a persistent criticism.

United  Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said he opposed giving the charter school sector access to state pre-K funds until its schools show that they could serve more higher-need students.

“We have to stop giving preferential treatment to schools that only serve some students,” Mulgrew said.

The commission, which was chaired by Richard Parsons, also hints in its report at some places where Cuomo might tweak his education policies. In a section about promising educational practices that could be brought to scale, the commission suggests looking at the Performance Standards Consortium, a group of 39 schools whose students complete portfolios and make presentations instead of passing Regents exams to graduate. The state has not moved quickly on approving the consortium’s own bid to expand up to now.

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.