The gubernatorial tradition of touring the state after an approved budget lives on in New York.
During a visit to a Long Island school, Gov. Kathy Hochul said an additional $150 million allocation in the 2023-24 budget will help cover 96% of eligible children with public preschool.
“Let’s start with the youngest ones, the prekindergartners,” Hochul said in Elmont. “And I know that you have a full day preschool, universal pre-K. … We’ve added more money, another $150 million to fully fund these programs. And right now, across the state, we have 96% of eligible preschoolers covered. I won’t rest until it’s 100%. But look how far we’ve come, from an ideal to have universal pre-K to really almost achieving it in its entirety.”
Some districts don’t offer pre-K at all, and others have limited seats. We wondered about her claim that the budget will “cover” 96% of eligible preschoolers.
Education advocates support expanding the state’s public pre-K program because of the benefits associated with early education. But even as Hochul claims the state is nearing 100% coverage, it would not be accurate to assume that every child, or nearly every child, can go to public preschool.
The budget’s additional $150 million brings total pre-K spending to more than $1.2 billion. In general, pre-K in New York State refers to children who turn 4 years old by Dec. 1, and it can be offered in full- or half-day formats. Few districts offer pre-K for 3-year-olds.
Hochul’s claim that the budget covers 96% of eligible preschoolers comes from the 157,000 slots for 4-year-olds that are funded, divided by the estimated 163,000 slots that are needed in the state, said Jason Gough, Hochul’s deputy communications director.
But the number of necessary slots is not equal to the number of 4-year-olds. Using a formula set in education law, the state determines the number of necessary slots by calculating 85% of the kindergarten enrollment in public, charter and private schools. The total enrollment is roughly 192,000, and 85% of that is roughly 163,000. In the 2022-23 school year, roughly 137,000 full- and half-day prekindergarten slots were funded. The 2023-24 budget includes an additional $150 million to fund an additional 20,000 full-day slots, for a total of 157,000.
“New York State provides prekindergarten funding for additional slots available,” Gough said. “It is the school districts that determine whether to establish or expand their prekindergarten programs.”
Districts receive funding on a per-slot basis, and the state assumes that its funds will be supplemented with local funding. The amount of money the state provides for every student varies across the state, making it difficult for some districts to fund the program.
Hochul is careful not to say that 96% of eligible children will go to public preschool. She said they are “covered” by state funding. The money is there for districts to serve preschoolers, but not every district has done that, for various reasons. State data from 2021-22 showed that 17% of districts did not have a program. Other programs had a range of eligible 4-year-olds participating, from 6% to 100%.
Some districts don’t have space or can’t find a community partner to operate the program. Others can’t afford the local share to expand or start a program.
If every 4-year-old in the state was counted as “eligible,” then the figure is much lower than 96%, said W. Steven Parnett, a professor at Rutgers University and senior co-director of its National Institute for Early Education Research.
The Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank, found that in the 2020-21 school year 46% of 4-year-olds in New York were in public pre-K. The state’s figure for the same year, however, was 61%.
The state has recently dramatically increased the number of children in public prekindergarten, and about 70% of eligible children are in it now, said Marina Marcou-O’Malley, policy and operations director of the Alliance for Quality Education, an advocate for universal pre-K.
Regardless of the level of public funding, experts say, 100% participation won’t happen because some parents want to send their children to private programs or prefer to keep them home until they attend kindergarten.
Hochul said 96% of eligible preschoolers will be covered by funding for public prekindergarten programs in the 2023-24 budget.
If you’re familiar with the way the state calculates how many 4-year-olds are considered eligible, and how public prekindergarten operates – or doesn’t, in some cases – what Hochul said might make sense. If you’re not, you might think that nearly every 4-year-old will be able to go to pre-K.
It is accurate that the state budget has funding for 96% of eligible 4-year-olds to go to prekindergarten. While we can’t predict how many 4-year-olds will be enrolled in September – and even the state estimates the number with its 85% figure – readers should know that school districts have other barriers to starting or expanding pre-K programs.
The governor’s statement is accurate, but it needs clarification or additional information, so we rate her claim Mostly True.