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New York Takes First Step Toward Universal Pre-K

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New York City public schools are getting nearly $300 million to fund full-day prekindergarten this school year, while another 80 districts and community groups will receive about $40 million, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office. 

The Democratic governor and state legislators reached an agreement on the money as part of the 2014-15 state budget. The $340 million is the first installment of a $1.5 billion, 5-year state project to implement a tuition-free, universal full-day prekindergarten program that will serve nearly 37,000 4-year-olds this year. 

In announcing the initial round of recipients in the competitive grant process last week, Gov. Cuomo called the program "one of the smartest investments we can make as a state." You can see the full list of districts receiving funding here.

The governor's office says it's the largest expansion of full-day pre-K in New York history, and would make the state only the fourth to implement such a program. Georgia was first, establishing universal prekindergarten in 1995. Oklahoma followed suit three years later and, in 2002, Florida approved a constitutional amendment requiring school districts to offer voluntary prekindergarten to all 4-year-old children.

Many politicians have made universal preschool a hallmark of their campaigns and policy priorities, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and President Obama. In his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses, the president called on Congress to help states provide high-quality early education. 

"Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child's life is high-quality early education," said the president in his January 2014 speech. 

However, as Education Week's Early Years blog has reported, studies on the academic benefits of preschool are not in universal agreement on its benefits, even for the Head Start program.

New York state's program is winning both praise and criticism—although the latter is a result of what some see as funding disparities.

In a Newsday article this week, Craig Carr, the superintendent of the nearly 12,000-student Central Islip school district on Long Island, said the state grant of $202,000 for his district would give preschoolers a "better foundation for their education."

But the superintendent of the North Babylon school district, which withdrew its application citing the short time frame for implementing the program, told Newsday that New York City's allotment seemed excessive. In all, six public school districts and two private schools on Long Island are sharing nearly $7.9 million this coming year.

"I think there's something wrong with this picture," said North Babylon Superintendent Patricia Godek.

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