10/25/2013 06:18 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2013

What It Would Take To Achieve Universal Pre-K In New York

Proposals to expand preschool opportunities in New York have been prominently in the news. They deserve careful consideration because, if properly designed and targeted, prekindergarten programs can have significant long-term benefits. The challenge is to design any expansion to maximize its cost-effectiveness and impact.

The calls for expanded pre-k are important and growing. Governor Andrew Cuomo's New NY Education Reform Commission has recommended full-day prekindergarten for all children in the state's highest needs school districts. New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio has made all-day pre-k for all four-year-olds a centerpiece of his campaign. Education advocates, led by the Center for Children's Initiatives and The Campaign for Educational Equity, have recently advanced a proposal that calls on State leaders "to recognize explicitly the right of every three- and four-year-old child to a high-quality, full-day prekindergarten program."

Before additional funds are dedicated to the expansion of pre-k, New York's leaders should take stock of some key facts including the limitations of current programs and the significant additional costs of making programs truly universal. The Citizens Budget Commission's new report titled "The Challenge of Making Universal Prekindergarten a Reality in New York State" highlights some of the difficult issues that should be addressed including:

New York has not been able to meet its ambitious goals for pre-k expansion established in 1997. The annual funding target of $500 million has not been reached; current funding nearly two decades later is $410 million. In 2013-14, 232 school districts in New York have not yet even begun a pre-k program. Less than half of the approximately 230,000 four-year-olds in the state will receive pre-k during this school year.

New York's pre-k investment is below national norms and that of neighboring states. Because the emphasis in New York has been on expanding access rather than enriching services, current per pupil spending on pre-k in New York lags national norms and falls well below spending per pupil in neighboring states that offer more targeted programs. If pre-k is to accomplish the lasting benefits for disadvantaged students shown in research studies, far more intensive and expensive programming will be required.

In New York average per pupil spending for preschool in the 2011-12 school year was $3,707, ranking 21 among the 40 states that offer public pre-k to four-year-olds. The top per pupil spender among states was New Jersey, which averaged $11,659. Other large or neighboring states that outspend New York on a per pupil basis include Connecticut ($8,388), Pennsylvania ($5,474), North Carolina ($5,160), Michigan ($4,422), California ($4,136), Massachusetts ($4,058), and Ohio ($3,980).

New York ranks higher among states - 9th out of the 40 states - in terms of the percentage of four-year-olds enrolled. Notably, the states that rank higher than New York on the per pupil spending measure - New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts, for example - offer more targeted programs, enrolling a smaller share of their four-year-olds.

New York's spending per pupil is not enough to guarantee high-quality programs. Although enrollment has grown significantly in New York, total spending in real terms has not kept pace. Reflecting that trend, teacher certification requirements for New York's nonprofit preschool providers have been postponed. In addition, standard curricula that would help ensure that children receive adequate and appropriate preparation for kindergarten and first grade is lacking.

High-quality pre-k is expensive. Offering high-quality universal public pre-k for every three- and four-year-old in New York State would be costly. The CBC report includes several funding scenarios and cost estimates. The added cost of expanding coverage to all four-year-olds would be an estimated $1.4 billion to provide pre-k according to the model used successfully in New Jersey and $2.0 billion, if costs align closely to average K-12 per pupil spending in New York, which is likely. Adding three-year-olds more than doubles the cost, because they are not currently eligible for State Universal Pre-K funds.

Moreover, if pre-k becomes a legally required extension of educational programming in New York, local governments would likely be required to fund part of the cost of the service, as they do for grades K-12. If school districts were required to pay the same proportion that K-12 foundation formulas require and costs for providing service are the same as the per pupil spending typical in New York, state taxpayers would bear $883 million in costs and local taxpayers would bear $1.1 billion for expansion of pre-k to all four-year-olds.

The ambitious calls for universal pre-k reflect admirable goals, but the fiscal and design challenges are significant. The analysis contained in the CBC report should lead to a fuller and more informed public discussion of this important topic.

Carol Kellermann is President of the Citizens Budget Commission.