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John King: Statewide pre-K would cost $1.6B a year

New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B.

New York State Education Commissioner Dr. John B. King Jr. answers a question from a member of the New York State Senate Education Committee during a two-hour meeting at the Capitol in Albany on Jan. 23, 2014. Credit: Philip Kamrass

ALBANY -- New York's education commissioner said Tuesday that full-day prekindergarten would cost about $1.6 billion annually if fully implemented -- or about three times the amount Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has proposed.

Commissioner John B. King Jr., testifying before a Senate-Assembly budget committee, said Cuomo's proposal isn't a lowball figure, but rather reflects that it will take some time for districts to develop the capacity to offer prekindergarten. Even if the State Legislature approves Cuomo's plan, many districts wouldn't be ready to offer the program in the upcoming academic year, King said.

"The challenge is, and the governor has talked to this issue, the capacity isn't there to deliver all of those seats and all of those programs in September," King told the panel. King's pre-K cost estimate closely matches one made last fall by the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan fiscal watchdog.

Pre-K has emerged as perhaps the most contentious element of the state budget -- with some saying the initiative will take state aid away from districts that are struggling to maintain kindergarten.

It rocketed to the top of the education agenda after newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat who ran on a platform of addressing income inequality, said he wanted to hike taxes on the city's wealthiest residents to pay for full-day prekindergarten for 4-year-olds. De Blasio says the New York City program would cost $340 million a year once it's operating fully.

Cuomo, a Democrat who is up for re-election, has proposed a total of $1.5 billion in state funding over five years for statewide pre-K, beginning with $100 million in the upcoming academic year and $500 million in the fifth year.

Cuomo opposes de Blasio's tax-hike proposal.

"So the governor's number is a not a realistic number," Assemb. James Brennan (D-Brooklyn) said to King.

"I think the governor's number is based on assumptions about how quickly" school districts can implement pre-K programs, King replied.

"As the governor previously said, we are prepared to fund full-day pre-K programs as quickly as they are ready," Cuomo spokesman Rich Azzopardi said Tuesday.

After Cuomo made his pre-K proposal last week, some state lawmakers said it would pit pre-K against funding for other elementary and secondary programs.

Lawmakers tried to drive that point home to King Tuesday.

"A lot of my colleagues and school districts are saying, 'Pre-K is nice, but you're killing us. This is another huge mandate coming our way and we're worried about maintaining kindergarten,' " said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport).

He said the state should offer school districts more flexibility on spending education dollars rather earmark them for specific uses.

King also spent considerable time defending Common Core academic standards, which have sparked raucous local hearings around the state. While acknowledging its implementation has been flawed, King said "now is not the moment" to back off from Common Core.

"The only thing common about Common Core is that it's being objected to commonly across the state," countered Sen. Terry Gipson (D-Rhinebeck).

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