New York governor Andrew Cuomo calls universal preschool one of his big priorities, and last year state lawmakers approved a big grant program to increase full-day preschool slots. It’s $340 million a year for five years. That grant just got approved for its second round, but the first year brought mixed results.
Angela Ray lives just west of Binghamton, in the Southern Tier of New York. On a recent school vacation day, her two kids show up at a family friend’s for dinner with lots of energy. Four-year-old Kiara and her big sister Arianna “help” get the food on the table. Kiara pours the water, and Arianna keeps a close eye on her.
On a regular day, Kiara goes to preschool at St. James School, a private school near Binghamton. Her sister is in kindergarten, but she went to St. James for preschool, too. Two kids in private preschool – it’s a lot of money for their single mom to pay out.
There is such a thing as free preschool. In New York, many public schools run free programs with state money. Much of that money is from the so-called “universal pre-k” push.
But despite the name, free preschool is far from universal. In fact, whether you can get it or not completely depends on which school district you live in. And full-day programs are even more rare.
Ray lives in the Maine-Endwell school district. The district has a half-day preschool, but that doesn’t help her because she works.
“I had to decide either to do the half-day and transport them to another facility or find a full-day program,” she says.
That dilemma is part of the reason New York launched a new grant last year for districts to expand full-day options. It’s a multi-year, competitive grant. Last year 62 districts in upstate New York won funds, but those winners are pretty unevenly distributed around the state. A lot of them are down near New York City. The Southern Tier had four awards, and the North Country had just one.
“I think if we look at the list of districts, they tend towards the larger districts, and certainly more urbanized districts,” says John Sipple, director of Cornell University’s Center for Rural Schools. “It’s not necessarily wealthy communities – I’m not saying that at all.”
Sipple says with a grant like this, big school districts are more likely to apply in the first place. It’s not so much about a district’s wealth. It’s the staff to fill out all that paperwork.
“When a grant opportunity comes in, the superintendent has multiple functions in that district,” Sipple says. “Often they’re the high school principal as well, the athletic director and so forth. And so whose office does it go to to fill out that grant? Well it’s the superintendent’s office or it’s the principal’s office, and sometimes they’re one and the same.”
Sometimes small districts don’t have enough resources to operate a full-day program either. That’s what happened in Angela Ray’s district, Maine Endwell.
“At this time, we don’t have the space to go full-day,” says preschool director and assistant elementary principal Greg Asfoury.
He says the preschool doesn’t have enough classrooms to go full-day. He does have a different idea for the money, though. “Instead of having the full-day program, we could institute busing and keep a half day program,” he says. “The number one problem that families face with the program is the middle-of-the-day transportation. If we could alleviate that number one problem and serve twice as many kids, I see that as a win-win for us and the families.”
In the meantime, Ray says for her preschool is worth the sacrifice. “You don’t eat out as much, you just pack a lunch if you go somewhere,” she says. “They’re my kids, you want the best for them.”
New York approved the second year of the grants this year. Schools that can manage it will submit applications in a few months.