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.