Long Island lags far behind in providing quality state-funded prekindergarten education, and greater efforts must be made to expand those services to the youngest learners, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said Tuesday at a conference in Woodbury.
Elia, speaking to early childhood educators, administrators and advocates, noted that only 7 percent of Long Island 4-year-olds have access to state-funded, full-day pre-K, compared with 100 percent of such students in New York City.
“We don’t care where the students are, we want all students to have the opportunity for a great experience in their prekindergarten,” Elia said. “Our top priority is that every student has the best start.”
She urged the audience to become advocates and publicize the importance of prekindergarten, saying that early literacy leads to later academic success.
Tuesday’s event was hosted by the Long Island Pre-K Initiative, a grant-funded project administered by Nassau BOCES that seeks to share information about research, policy and best practices for early learning.
Elia said she expects the state Board of Regents, which sets education policy, to make prekindergarten funding a priority this year, but also acknowledged that she is expecting a “tight year.”
“We have to see how much we can do to make sure that we are expanding the program each year,” she said.
Last year, the state Education Department asked for $100 million for prekindergarten programming but received $5 million, she said.
On Long Island, 11 districts have full-day prekindergarten only, while seven districts offer both full- and half-day programs, according to the initiative. Forty-four districts offer only half-day programs and 62 do not have any public pre-K. If a district offers a full-day program, it does not serve all eligible children, as some students are selected by lottery.
A 2017 report authored by the Manhattan-based Center for Children’s Initiatives found that 81 percent of all 4-year-olds statewide outside of New York City did not have access to state-funded, full-day prekindergarten programs. On a regional breakdown, Long Island led that list, followed by the North Country and Hudson Valley regions.
Lucinda Hurley, executive director of Nassau BOCES’ Department of Strategic Initiatives, which has organized the Island-wide pre-K initiative, advocated for a steady, reliable funding stream to expand pre-K — but not at the expense of taking funding from K-12 sources.
Most recently, prekindergarten programs were primarily funded through competitive state grants.
In November, the Regents approved a proposal to streamline funding for pre-K programs with the goal of making it easier for school districts to expand their programs.
In 2013, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo committed to a five-year phase-in of universal pre-K. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has expanded universal pre-K, providing a full-day tuition-free classroom spot to every 4-year-old in the city.
“We have a challenge on Long Island because we look like a real affluent area, but there is significant need here for children of all incomes,” Hurley said. “The call that we have is for this to be funded in a different sort of way, for school districts not to fund it solely out of their general operating fund.”