Pre-K issue will test de Blasio, Cuomo

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attends

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio attends a news conference with union leaders at the Union Johnson Early Learning Center in Manhattan on Jan. 6, 2014. (Credit: Charles Eckert)

Don't rush to place bets on the results of City Hall's drive to expand prekindergarten education. The politics and finances of it require a lot of clarification in the weeks ahead.

Suspense is building early over whether the state would authorize the city to boost taxes on its wealthiest citizens, perhaps offer new aid for pre-K, or do both or neither.

Mayor Bill de Blasio brings his top-priority call for universal pre-K to Albany for Wednesday's opening of a new legislative session. He demands authorization to hike the city's income tax on earners over $500,000 from 3.86 percent to 4.41 percent. This five-year surcharge, he says, would yield $530 million in new revenue to pay for pre-K for all 4-year-olds -- and fund after-school programs for all middle-school kids.


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Fresh off his big election win, Blasio has dug into his position that pre-K funds must come from this tax -- and any vows of year-to-year state infusions won't do.

But fellow Democrat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seeking re-election this year, is calling for tax cuts Wednesday in his annual State of the State speech. Cuomo says he supports pre-K, but that funding must be discussed later on.

As de Blasio and Cuomo go into this session with cordial words -- but different agendas -- predictions are flying that a clash of ideologies, or a "more-progressive-than-thou" contest, will commence between them. So far, however, both men seem the kind of sly players who keep their conflicts outside everyone else's earshot.

Yet their working relationship is one big thing that needs to be clarified. They know each other, but haven't negotiated before, in a world where mayors and governors traditionally butt heads sooner or later.

Backers of expanding pre-K sound hopeful. "No matter how much the mayor and governor may fight, it looks like kids may win this year and we'll get some pre-K dollars," Assembly Education Committee chairwoman Catherine Nolan (D-Ridgewood) said on the eve of Cuomo's speech.

Still, questions loom. For starters, how accurate are de Blasio's funding numbers? Budget professionals in Albany and the city will be vetting his projections of how much the proposed tax really raises, and what the desired universal pre-K really costs.

Remember, de Blasio's rivals in both major parties attacked his plan as hazy and the tax as unlikely and ill-advised. Not all his critics have vanished, though their confident "dead-on-arrival" predictions for de Blasio's signature proposal may yet prove wrong or exaggerated.

City budget director Dean Fuleihan -- a longtime fiscal aide in Albany -- will know how opaque budget politics can be. Year after year, he saw school district officials -- especially New York City's -- fight with the governor over how much aid the annual executive budget contained.

At the state Capitol, basic facts of any proposal are often disputed before anyone even debates its intended merits. This one will be no exception.

Consider a statewide report last fall by the Citizens Budget Commission that said: "If pre-K is to accomplish the lasting benefits for disadvantaged students shown in research studies, far more intensive and expensive programming [than now offered] will be required."

CBC president Carol Kellermann then added: "The challenge is to design any expansion to maximize its cost-effectiveness and potential impact."

As with any education program, implementation is complex -- and goes beyond the question of which politicians may "win" or "lose" in Albany.