Prekindergarten students at Columbus Avenue Early Childhood Center in Freeport....

Prekindergarten students at Columbus Avenue Early Childhood Center in Freeport. (Sept. 13, 2013) Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Long Island school districts have been steadily privatizing their prekindergarten programs, a move they say saves them money and preserves early childhood education that could be the target of funding cuts.

Districts can go to private contractors because pre-K is not mandated by the state Department of Education. It's a much less expensive option than using public school employees. Staffers of private organizations are paid about one-third of what schoolteachers get, said Dana Friedman, director of the Plainview-based Early Years Institute.

Nearly 70 of 121 school districts on Long Island that serve elementary students offered prekindergarten in the 2011-12 school year, the latest year for which figures were available, according to the state Department of Education. More than 9,000 children in Nassau and Suffolk counties were enrolled that year in pre-K, whether in programs run by districts or contracted out to community-based organizations.

An analysis of early childhood programs on Long Island showed there were 105 community-based organizations providing services in 47 districts in 2010, according to the Early Years Institute, which promotes the importance of children's early years for success in school and life.

More than 82 percent of the increase in the number of children served in pre-K programs on the Island between 2007-08 and 2009-10 occurred in community-based organizations and were run through the public school system, the institute found.

Experts there expect the shift to continue. At least two districts -- Freeport and Westbury -- recently privatized their programs.

"This trend will only increase in these tough budget years," Friedman said.

Freeport saves $1M a year

Freeport, for example, has had a pre-K program since the 1970s. But the cost to educate about 300 4-year-olds was starting to top $2 million a year, Superintendent Kishore Kuncham said. By outsourcing to a contractor -- in this case, St. Joseph's College -- the district saves about $1 million a year and still can offer an important service.

"Now we are into our third year -- each of the last two years and current year -- we have been able to literally have $3 million in savings to the taxpayers," Kuncham said.

This year, Westbury schools are contracting out pre-K services, also to St. Joseph's, according to college officials. The district's superintendent and other officials did not return calls for comment. According to school district documents, the total program cost for one year is $503,672.

St. Joseph's uses its own staff, in many cases recent graduates, to teach the pre-K program in school districts' buildings.

"There is an enormous body of research showing that young children, particularly those from low-income families, benefit significantly from preschool," Friedman said, adding that children who attend preschool have been shown to need fewer remedial classes in later grades and are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior in high school.

State funding for prekindergarten has mostly remained flat, with slightly more than $385 million allocated statewide in both the 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, according to the Education Department. Over the past several years, the Board of Regents has sought additional funding for pre-K programs in the state budget.

New York State requires school districts receiving funds for prekindergarten to spend at least 10 percent of those funds on community-based organizations, which is one reason districts are using more private operators. Some districts have always used private providers.

There is no cost to parents for such programs, most of which are half-day and serve 4-year-olds. Some districts offer the service in public school buildings, while others, such as William Floyd, have contracted with centers throughout the community. Some districts provide transportation.

William Floyd Superintendent Paul Casciano said the district took a hard look at the state allocation and the cost of running pre-K before launching its program with private providers nearly 15 years ago.

The district contracts with six centers in the area, and the program always has been run in partnership with private pre-K providers.

"We anticipated back in 1999 that if we brought it in-house, all of the rules that apply to employees in terms of salaries and benefits and everything that applies in terms of working conditions, would apply in a universal pre-K situation," Casciano said.

Accountability questioned

New York State United Teachers, the state's largest teacher union, takes the position that school districts are more accountable to the public and to parents than private operators.

"The significant issue for us is private pre-K programs do not have to employ certified teachers, and parents should be concerned about pre-K programs that do not employ teachers who are certified," spokesman Carl Korn said. "All the research shows that quality pre-K programs do make a difference in the lives of young children."

Mary Fritz, director of universal prekindergarten for St. Joseph's, which also contracts with Lawrence and Patchogue, said their staff members are St. Joseph's graduates -- some with bachelor's degrees and others working on master's degrees. They have provisionary certification, and the hours they spend in the classroom lead to their permanent certification.

"We follow all of the requirements of New York State and we are heavily now into Common Core," she said, referring to the new, more rigorous Common Core academic standards. "They all have two certified teachers in the classroom. The legislation, the regulations demand every classroom must have a teacher and a teacher assistant, and we go beyond that."

Fritz said St. Joseph's will not supply programs in a district if it means teachers will lose jobs. Rather, any affected tenured teachers are shifted to other positions in the district.

Casciano said they make sure their private operators follow Common Core and that the content of early childhood education is sound.

"We are looking to make sure they are ready for kindergarten," he said, adding that pre-K "provides the opportunity for all students to be successful when they eventually enter school."

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