BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) – It’s not even lunchtime yet, and already the 4-year-olds in West Hertel Academy’s full-day prekindergarten have practiced writing the alphabet, discussed the day of the week, months of the year, shapes and the weather.
Small groups rotate through stations to plink on computers, page through books and work on writing sentences. Some will head to the music room for violin lessons. Later comes story time and physical fitness. It’s all part of preparing for the next step in their academic career.
“The expectations are so high in kindergarten,” said teacher Angela Tirone. “Pre-K is a necessity.”
The experience at this Buffalo public school is the kind of full-day prekindergarten envisioned by experts and educators for all New York’s 4-year-olds and endorsed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in his State of the State address.
But it won’t come cheap. It could cost $1.4 billion to $2 billion a year, more than triple what the state now spends, according to an estimate by the independent Citizens Budget Commission.
How Cuomo intends to pay for it is not yet clear, but he may offer some insight Tuesday when he releases his 2014-15 budget proposal.
Advocates say the benefits outweigh the costs.
Cuomo cited a study that found that every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education programs results in a return of $12.90 in the form of higher tax revenues, lower criminal justice expenses and lower welfare payments.
Students coming from pre-K are less likely to drop out, repeat grades or require special education services and are more likely to go to college, according to research cited by the Education Commission of the States.
“There is a huge amount of momentum in support of pre-K,” said Billy Easton, executive director of the Alliance for Quality Education, which is urging Cuomo to increase pre-K funding by $225 million.
In New York City, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio made universal pre-K a platform in his campaign, proposing to fund it with a tax increase on the wealthy. Such an increase, which has support in the city, would need approval from the state Legislature and Cuomo.
President Barack Obama, too, has proposed dramatically expanding prekindergarten, saying last spring it delivered the most “bang for the buck” in improving educational outcomes.
Cuomo increased statewide pre-K funding from $385 million to $410 million last year but put the additional $25 million in the form of competitive grants that left some school districts reluctant to apply. Administrators worried they wouldn’t have the budget to maintain pre-K once the grant ran out.
“In the past, we’ve seen Gov. Cuomo do small boutique programs that don’t serve a lot of children,” said Easton, whose group has pushed for a total school aid increase of $1.9 billion, or about 9 percent. “We need him to understand he needs to make a serious commitment.”
Of New York’s nearly 700 school districts, 449 now offer prekindergarten, enrolling about 100,000 students. But about 75 percent are half-day programs, which advocates say don’t go far enough, especially since the adoption of the rigorous Common Core learning standards, which have raised academic benchmarks from kindergarten through graduation.
At least 30,000 4-year-olds in high-needs districts in New York state are without access to pre-K, according to an October report by the Campaign for Educational Equity and Center for Children’s Initiatives.
Nationally, about 28 percent of 4-year-olds attended publicly funded pre-K programs in 2012, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“When we talk about having our kids be college and career ready … we want them to be right at benchmark right at the beginning of their school career so they never feel like they’re struggling,” West Hertel Assistant Principal Aatka Patel said.
For example, kindergarten students are expected to write in journals, a tall order for a child who, without the benefit of pre-K, may start the year not knowing how to hold a pencil.
“By the time they hit 4, they’re ready,” Patel said. “This is when they’re eager to learn. Why not give them what they want?”