Kevin Gray and his wife, Natalie, packed up their life in the Bronx two years ago and moved to an apartment in Yonkers. Their goal: to get their daughter into the school district's diverse and celebrated universal pre-Kindergarten.
Months later, Gray learned the very school program he turned his life upside down for was slated to be cut.
"They had this one shining jewel in their crown: Yonkers pre-K was a light at the end of the tunnel. Then we moved here and the tunnel went dark," Gray said.
Yonkers officials aren't alone in trimming, altering or entirely eliminating pre-Kindergarten programs. Almost a decade after the state promised publicly funded preschool for all, fewer than half of New York's approximately 230,000 4-year-olds have access due both to stalled state funding and local budget crunches, according to the state Education Department.
What's more, enrollment in the program throughout the state is dropping as schools cut programs to meet their dwindling budgets. There were about 4,200 fewer 4-year-olds in pre-Kindergarten in 2010-11 than in 2009-10, or a 2 percent decline, according to a National Institute for Early Education Research report released in April.
State Education Commissioner John King Jr. wants to see that trend reversed and is calling for an increased state investment in early education.
"Despite the fiscal climate, the long-term returns on investment in early childhood education are very significant," said King, who plans to make universal preschool funding one of his top education priorities.
"This is the wrong moment to be retreating from early childhood education," King said.
King and the state Board of Regents this year advocated adding $53 million to the current $414 million state investment in universal pre-K. An analysis also suggested changes to the funding structure. However, pre-Kindergarten funding remained flat in the adopted state budget.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Research shows that early education, especially among at-risk students, improves graduation outcomes and can even save money later for schools. A study by Yonkers Public Schools, which evaluated pre-Kindergarten during a 10-year period, found that students who attended the program outperformed their peers on tests and graduation rates by double-digit margins.
"We would save so much money in education if we concentrated on the early education process," said Yonkers Public Schools Superintendent Bernard Pierorazio.
State funds flat, district money squeezed
During the past decade, stops and starts in state funding restrained districts from adding pre-K programs, according to a Board of Regents analysis. In 2001, funding was trimmed back and then frozen for five years. The program got another boost of money from 2006 to 2008. Since then, funding has remained flat.
Three Hudson Valley school districts -- Briarcliff Manor, Florida and Hyde Park -- were among 14 statewide to be awarded planning grants in 2007-08. Those districts never began pre-Kindergarten programs because state funding stalled.
Putnam County, which consists of middle-class and wealthy districts, is the only county in the state in which not a single community has a universal preschool program.
In more affluent communities where parents can afford private preschool, there's less of a demand for universal pre-Kindergarten, said Jim Langlois, district superintendent of Putnam-Northern Westchester BOCES. "Where money is available, the need shrinks considerably," Langlois said.
School districts with greater resources also get less funding per student from the state for universal pre-Kindergarten programs, Langlois said.
The state offers a minimum of $2,700 per student but gives more to districts with fewer resources. Local districts then pay the rest of the program cost, which varies by district.
In recent years, districts have had to deal with their own financial woes, with the state cutting $2.7 billion in general funding to schools and implementing a 2 percent tax cap on local revenues.
"All districts are constrained in the things they're doing," said White Plains Schools Superintendent Christopher Clouet.
In the 2011-12 school year, White Plains passed along the pre-K program to private providers who charge tuition to make up the for the costs that the state does not cover. The school district does provide assistance for families who can't afford tuition.
Highland Falls closed its public pre-K program entirely for the 2010-11 school year, saving about $150,000.
"Certainly, we know that if we could do more with early education, it would make a tremendous difference and have savings down the line," said Highland Falls Superintendent Debra Jackson. "But providing that opportunity is difficult when the funding isn't there."
This school year, Yonkers switched to a half-day program for a $9 million savings. Pierorazio believes that the change has prohibited many working parents from choosing to enroll their kids.
Yonkers registered about 2,100 students last school year, but actual enrollment dropped to just 1,450. In 2010-11, the program served about 1,740 students.
The fight for universal pre-K
Yonkers parent and community activist Lekia Hill says she saw the difference full-day universal pre-Kindergarten made for her now-12-year-old son. "He was reading at 4 years old," Hill said. "Now he's an honors student."
This summer, she's grappling with whether, as a single mother, she can manage with only a half-day program for her daughter. She's looking for scholarships for a private program or she said she may move to Ossining, which offers universal pre-K.
Gray enrolled his daughter into PEARLS Hawthorne School in the Yonkers district for a half-day pre-Kindergarten this year. The unemployed doctoral candidate, said that 21/2 hours is "just enough time for me to get home, and get nothing done, before I have to go pick her up."
Gray and Hill, both members of Yonkers Parents United, have launched a fight to get universal pre-Kindergarten back for Yonkers kids. They want Pierorazio to move the program up to the top of the restorations list when money becomes available.
Meanwhile, King said he'll continue to press the issue at the state level. He's hopeful that Cuomo will support new investment when the economy improves.
"Any retreat from early child education spending strikes me as a long-term mistake," King said. "Ultimately, if students have high-quality, early-childhood education, they're more likely to be successful, stay in school and become more productive citizens."