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Baldwin moving forward with universal pre-K

State aid may be used to contract externally

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New York state recently allocated nearly $550,000 for the Baldwin School district to create 96 full-day pre-kindergarten slots next school year. Now district officials are finalizing a request-for-proposals to contract with outside providers or develop partnerships with outside community groups to add the slots.  

With this state aid, districts can create their own pre-K programs in their schools, lease facilities that are within or near the districts, or contract with other day-care providers, early childhood programs or community-based organizations, which is the avenue that Baldwin is exploring.

The state allotted $5,704 per student in pre-K. Districts may use the funds to cover transportation, programs, salaries, materials and supplies, administrative services, leasing expenses and other facility costs, and professional developmen, all of which must be approved by the state education commissioner.

The state also stipulates that 10 percent of funding must be used to contract with one or more eligible local community-based pre-K programs, regardless of whether the district decides to undertake its own pre-K program. Local officials must engage in a competitive selection process to decide which programs receive funding, even if the district has already contracted with an eligible program.

Universal pre-K participation is not mandatory. If too many students register for it, a lottery will determine entry. This may pose a problem for parents who may still need to pay for private pre-K in the area, which runs on average between $250 to $350 a week. According to the State Education Department, roughly 41 percent of Baldwin students were economically disadvantaged in 2019-20.

Baldwin resident Scott Hoffman recognized the question of equity inherent in implementing universal pre-K, noting, “It’s important for all kids to have the same start.” Paulette Lalljee seconded that sentiment, saying, “Poor and underprivileged kids come from every culture — let’s give every child a good start.” 

Marissa Oh, another resident, added that the U.S. education system lags behind other countries’ in equitable distribution of outcomes. “It’s shameful that we represent ourselves as a first-world country and our entire student body doesn’t present as such,” she said.

The state has allotted $970 million for universal pre-K, and the allocation is expected to balloon to $1 billion by the end of 2023-24. This year the state pre-K budget was expanded by $105 million, with $90 million in direct allocations and $15 million in competitive grants. The $90 million was distributed for the first time to 232 districts, including Baldwin. 

District officials are still exploring whether they will apply for a competitive grant, saying in a prepared statement, “We will continue to seek the opportunities and apply where appropriate.”

State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat from Long Beach, said of the state aid, “Importantly, the more money we secure from Albany, the less local taxpayers are called on to shoulder the financial burden.”

Some Baldwinites said they were concerned that their tax dollars would go to universal pre-K, which Kathy Lenhart Ganley described as “glorified day care at the taxpayers’ expense.”

Others like Neetika Prabhakar said they believed it’s a sound investment. “I hate taxes, but my child was in universal pre-K in New York City, and it was legit,” she said.

On May 18, Baldwin residents approved the 2021-22 district budget of $142.4 million, of which $100 million came from property taxes. While residents had mixed feelings about a nearly 3 percent budget increase, pre-K did not add to the 1.74 percent increase in the tax levy — the total amount that the district must collect in taxes to meet expenses — because of state aid.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, which studied pre-K in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Boston, Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman and other experts have found that while a pre-K education has no measurable effect on test scores, it does help children develop socio-emotional intelligence that leads to better life outcomes.

While some parents recognized the benefits of a pre-K education, others still questioned universal pre-K as a waste of resources or simply a handout to working parents.

Hoffman, however, said, “If you don’t want to send your kids to pre-K, then keep them home.”