Pre-K funding fight fuels upstate-downstate divide

Feb 14, 2014

Gov. Andrew Cuomo seems to have gained the upper hand and some new allies in his policy skirmish with New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio over how to fund pre-kindergarten, as the fight threatens to turn into an upstate downstate split.

DeBlasio has been seeking permission from Cuomo and the legislature to raise income taxes on the wealthy in New York City in order to pay for access to pre-kindergarten for almost 75,000 four-year-olds there, arguing that it would help ease income inequality.

Cuomo, in response, has said he does not want to raise taxes on anyone this year, even the richest New Yorkers, and instead proposed a plan to fund statewide pre-kindergarten, using funds from the state budget, in a five-year phase in.

DeBlasio’s campaign for the tax hike for universal pre-K had been gaining strength, until a poll showed more New Yorkers favored Cuomo’s approach.  The governor turned around de Blasio’s income inequality argument, saying poorer cities upstate don’t have enough wealthy residents to finance pre-K through taxing the rich.

“A lot of cities don’t have that kind of economic base,” Cuomo said. “They don’t have those numbers of millionaires.”

DeBlasio, in his budget address, made what could be considered a gaffe when defending his plan to  reporters, when he seemed to say New York City children need pre-K  more than upstate kids.

“By the way, the children we would reach are amongst the poorest in the Unites States of America, let’s be clear,” said deBlasio. “There are serious problems, for example upstate, serious economic problems.”

The mayor also says New York City deals with some of the “biggest challenges” in the nation, including greater numbers of special education students and English language learners. He says three-quarters of New York City’s graduating high school seniors are not considered to be college ready.

“We have vast needs here that must be addressed,” deBlasio said.

Cuomo, one day later, did not directly criticize the mayor, saying he would need to know more about the context of deBlasio’s statements. But he questioned the premise that any of the state’s children should be put before others.

“Any policy that would seek to divide the state, I will oppose,” Cuomo said. “Any policy that would seek to differentiate treatment for children, especially on such a vital service as pre-K, I would oppose.”

Mayors from several upstate cities, including Niagara Falls and Middletown also responded in a series of press releases, saying they were “disheartened” and “disappointed” by deBlasio’s statements.

Several Republicans in the state Senate, who already oppose giving New York City permission to raise the tax, say in a statement that they are “deeply offended with the assertion that the children in New York City are more deserving and more in need of early childhood education than the four- and five-year-olds in the communities" that they represent.

Senators John Flanagan of Long Island, John DeFrancisco of Syracuse and Joe Robach of Rochester  point out that Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo actually have higher poverty rates than New York City.

But the Alliance for Quality Education, a school funding advocacy group, say the argument is a false one. AQE’s Billy Easton says it’s not an either/or situation, and that if New York City funds its own pre-K, than means there is more money for upstate and Long Island children, using state funds for pre-kindergarten.

“If New York City pays its own way on pre-K, then Middletown, and Niagara Falls and Yonkers don’t have to compete with those New York City kids for the state dollars,” Easton said. “The solution here is to do the deBlasio plan and the statewide plan, that serves more kids all over the state.”

The opposition to the income tax hike from Cuomo and Senate Republicans, who rule that house in a coalition government, will make it difficult for the New York City mayor to win permission to impose the tax increase.

Late in the day, a spokesman for deBlasio offered a conciliatory statement. Spokesman Phil Walzak said “We've created the best pre-K program for our children in New York City and we support every mayor’s vision to do the same.”