Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outlines his plan to provide more...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo outlines his plan to provide more than $2 billion in tax relief to New York's families and businesses. (Jan. 6, 2014) Credit: Office of the Governor

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo Monday said he will continue to push for prekindergarten statewide, but he avoided a thorny debate with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio about how to pay for it.

Cuomo's election-year focus is on tax cuts and reversing New York's high-tax image to attract employers. De Blasio wants to increase the income tax on the wealthiest city residents to pay for an expansion of prekindergarten in New York City. De Blasio wants a "dedicated source" of revenue such as an income tax surcharge that couldn't easily be cut in a fiscal crisis.

"There is no doubt that pre-K is the way to go and that it should be accelerated," Cuomo said. "Once we get there on the goal, then the question is how do you pay for it? And that is going to be a broader conversation with the legislature when everything else is on the table."

Cuomo said he doesn't plan to raise the funding issue in Wednesday's State of the State speech.

In Manhattan Monday, de Blasio said he is simply seeking approval from Albany to increase the tax on city residents, not conflict with Cuomo's tax-cut strategy. "We in the City of New York have the capacity to do it," de Blasio said, speaking at an East Harlem early education center. "And we should be given that right."

De Blasio said he was pleased with Cuomo's commitment to the program.

"This is a good beginning. But we don't want to phase in, we don't want a 'someday,' we don't want the 15 years where there was some support in Albany, but never that critical mass," de Blasio said. "The moment has come, and we're going to see it through to completion."

De Blasio surrounded himself with representatives from a dozen labor unions, including the United Federation of Teachers, which have long had great influence in the State Legislature.

Cuomo said he needs to know how many schools would accept the offer of prekindergarten, how many could find or build new space, and other factors before a financial plan could be negotiated.

"I'm on step one, which is to get agreement from all our partners," Cuomo said.

"The bottom line is there have been 15 years of promises on pre-K," said Billy Easton of the Alliance for Quality Education, which lobbies for school aid. "While anything the governor would do on prekindergarten would be positive, it should not stand in the way of Mayor de Blasio from finding a way to pay for pre-K in the city."

Prekindergarten statewide has been a high priority for Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver since 1997 and now about 450 of the state's 700 school districts offer prekindergarten. Bipartisan supporters of the program say it better prepares students, particularly those in low-income areas, to succeed in school.

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