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More equal than others

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In criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan for a New York City-focused prekindergarten program, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo indicated he didn’t like the implied inequality.

Mayor de Blasio wants to tax his wealthier residents to pay for a pre-K program in New York City schools, which would require authorization from the New York State Legislature. Having a dedicated tax to fund the program will ensure the revenue doesn’t dry up, the mayor argued. Pulling the money from a general education fund would risk the program if budget cuts had to be implemented, Mayor de Blasio said.

But Gov. Cuomo was having none of it. New York City has the highest concentration of wealthy people of any region of the state. This means that children in the Big Apple would be treated to a premium pre-K educational experience while kids throughout the rest of the state would get by on whatever finances could be scraped up, opponents of Mayor de Blasio’s plan believe.

“I support a statewide system because the children in New York City are precious and so are the children in Buffalo and so are the children in Albany and so are the children in Suffolk,” Gov. Cuomo said on WNYC. “I’m not going to leave behind the children in any part of this state. That is not going to happen. And no one should want it to happen.”

“I don’t believe that the wealth in New York City should be used just in New York City,” he said in a news conference in Albany. “I don’t believe the wealth in Nassau should be used just in Nassau. That would place poorer communities at a disadvantage.”

Gov. Cuomo is not alone in expressing these sentiments. Here is a joint statement from state Senate Education Chairman John Flanagan, Senate Finance Chairman John DeFrancisco and Sen. Joe Robach from the Rochester area:

“As members of the New York State Senate, we are deeply offended by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent assertion that the children in New York City are more deserving and more in need of early childhood education than the 4- and 5-year-olds in the communities we represent. We know Mayor de Blasio has a lot on his plate, but he may be interested in learning a few facts about the rest of the state. All four of the big city school districts — including Rochester, Syracuse and Buffalo — are poorer than New York City, and 70 percent (471) of the school districts across the state — serving more than 1.2 million students — are less wealthy than the one he represents.

“In addition, 20 percent of the school districts in New York state have a greater percentage of students with higher needs than New York City, and many of those districts are worse off than the worst parts of New York City. Meanwhile, the city of Rochester has the fifth-highest poverty rate among all U.S. cities. In fact, during legislative budget hearings, we heard testimony from many upstate mayors about the difficulties their cities are facing. We have a responsibility to provide every student in this state with the same opportunity to learn and to succeed, not just the students in New York City.”

Here are a few points that need clarity.

First of all, state legislators could give Mayor de Blasio the green light to tax his residents to the bejesus and fund his own program. That would leave the remainder of state education funds allocated for pre-K to be used by all other districts. Some of the wealthier people will most likely move out of New York City, which will reduce the available funds for Mayor de Blasio’s program and, thus, provide more equity with the rest of the state.

But a better plan would be to forget about funding pre-K. I have a hard time accepting that kids who start pre-K at the age of 4 are substantially more advanced than children who start kindergarten at age 5.

At the risk of irritating scores of educators, I believe pre-K is a tad overhyped. How far behind can kids that young get in just one year?

Financial resources would be better used bringing kids in kindergarten and first grade up to speed with other students if they appear to lag academically. By focusing on students who need remedial help, schools wouldn’t have to create an entirely new program.

The deeper issue here, though, is applying questions about equitable school funding to the primary and secondary levels. Why should some school districts have substantially more money to spend than others do throughout the state?

According to the Empire Center for Public Policy, Wainscott CSD in Suffolk County (17 students) spent $97,346 on instruction per pupil in the 2007-08 academic year — the highest in the state. The lowest such spending in the same year occurred in Lancaster CSD in Erie County with $5,700 per pupil.

If Gov. Cuomo and state legislators object to the idea that New York City would have a better financed pre-K program, why haven’t they raised this issue when it comes to paying for all other grades? With so many districts calling for additional state assistance while the governor wants to keep property taxes low, it’s time to find a better formula for financing our public schools. Funding equity is a legitimate issue, but the discussion shouldn’t be abandoned before children reach kindergarten.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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