TPM Cafe: Opinion

How De Blasio Could Strongarm Gov. Cuomo Into Backing Universal Pre-K

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AP Photo / Mike Groll

There’s no use in complaining. De Blasio can’t substantially reconfigure the narrative in the national coverage he gets (even if he wanted to). It is what it is — except when it’s more. The extra attention doesn’t just mean extra spectators; it also means reshaping the stakes and strategy framing de Blasio’s political position.

Keep that in mind as you watch the handicapping of the new mayor’s faceoff with fellow New York Democrat, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, over universal pre-K.

To hear Cuomo tell it, the two men are agreed on the objective—expanding pre-K access to more 4 year olds—but not on the revenue stream. Until recently, most of the coverage of the disagreement has adopted this lens.

De Blasio campaigned on investing in pre-K by raising taxes on city residents making more than half-a-million dollars annually, a proposal which would raise about $1.7 billion over the next five years. This would fund a $340 million universal pre-K program in addition to early education infrastructure upgrades and after-school programs for middle-school students. New York City’s voters loved it.

Once it became clear that de Blasio meant to keep that pledge, Cuomo offered to expand universal pre-K across the state with a mere $1.5 billion in state funds over the next five years. The specific revenue stream backing that guarantee isn’t yet clear. But wherever he gets the money for pre-K, it won’t be from tax increases on the wealthy—since he’s vowed to cut taxes ahead of his re-election campaign this fall.

If this were the whole story, then sure, the revenue source appears to be the crucial difference. This disagreement pits progressivism’s most prominent spokesman against a fiscal conservative with presidential ambitions. If it’s a battle over governing philosophies, the revenue source is the fundamental issue. And frankly, if that’s the framing, de Blasio is in a very difficult position. Albany has to sign off on his proposed tax increase. Cuomo is running for re-election (and possibly for president) and needs to satisfy his donor base—many of whom reside in New York City and make more than half-a-million dollars each year. In a faceoff over revenue sources, Cuomo holds most of the institutional cards.

But revenue isn’t the only available framing, because it’s not the only difference between the two men’s pre-K plans. They also disagree over the urgency and the scope of the pre-K programs the state should fund. De Blasio could consider taking the fiscal argument off the table (for a moment) to shift the debate to a discussion of what’s best for kids.

In an interview last week with the New York Times, Cuomo said, “Whatever [de Blasio] needs … as fast as he can phase it in, we’ll fund it.” The Times’ editorial board called it a “blank check.” The first year of Cuomo’s universal pre-K plan offers just $100 million for expanded access. Note: that’s across the whole state. In other words, Cuomo’s blank check without a specific revenue backing may not only be missing a revenue source; it may be less blank than Cuomo’s promised.

This is why Cuomo's position is much weaker than it seems. As New York State education commissioner John King recently admitted, “The governor's projection is based on some assumptions about how quickly districts will ramp up their pre-K capacity.”

For the moment, at least, de Blasio could call Cuomo’s bluff by setting the revenue question aside, taking the state’s money, and ramping up the pre-K program in New York City as quickly as possible. He'd burn the (statewide) $100 million without breaking a sweat.

Check the numbers. De Blasio proposed to spend $10,239 per student, and Cuomo would keep that number around $7,200. For comparison’s sake, consider that Washington, D.C.’s near-universal pre-K program spends around $14,000. Is it possible to run a high-quality program in famously expensive New York City at half that price? Maybe, but even if de Blasio accepts Cuomo’s per student numbers, he’d only need to find and enroll 14,000 new students to spend the state’s $100 million. And that’s supposed to cover the first year of expansion for the entire state.

Could de Blasio really scale up that quickly? No question. In fact, he could get almost entirely there by simply expanding the city’s existing 26,000 part-time pre-K slots to full-time. Those are existing teachers, materials, and classrooms. Converting them to full-time would be relatively simple, compared with the challenge of establishing new slots.

If de Blasio came back with gaudy enrollment numbers and correspondingly large budget needs, he’d be in a commanding political position. After all, Cuomo boasted that “We’re very good at writing checks.” He can’t credibly slow down New York City’s implementation of universal pre-K, since he blocked de Blasio’s tax hike on the wealthy on the grounds that the additional revenue wasn’t necessary.

At this point, Cuomo would almost certainly be eager to shift the debate to the quality of the pre-K program that de Blasio was rushing into place in the city. And that’s a debate that’s much more congenial to de Blasio’s initial proposal. After all, de Blasio’s version of universal pre-K would cost $3,000 more per student because it offers an additional 80 minutes of instruction a day and adds additional instructional priorities (like supporting the city’s large English language learner population).

This shift in the conversation would force Cuomo to justify spending less and serving fewer kids. Recall, pre-K is popular in New York (and nationwide). By removing the tax hike at the outset, Cuomo makes it an easier sell. But by the time de Blasio comes back with a crowd of children ready to start in the fall, Cuomo would be forced to make a fiscal stand in the schoolhouse door. Which is certainly not a position he’ll be eager to take during a reelection campaign. That leaves him with a choice: renege on his promise to pay for the program at de Blasio’s pace or explore bigger revenue supports.

In that context, it’s worth remembering that Cuomo's presidential ambitions might well run through Hillary Clinton’s. And she’s spending her time “off” from public service leading Too Small to Fail, an organization advocating for larger, better investments in early childhood education.

Sure, there are legitimate questions about rapid implementation of universal pre-K. Above all, it’s not clear how de Blasio will find enough highly-talented early childhood teachers to serve the many thousands of new students. But that conversation can’t start until we dispense with the current proxy war between each man’s fiscal ideology. And de Blasio could—if he’s willing—force the issue.

Conor P. Williams, PhD is a Senior Researcher in New America’s Early Education Initiative. Follow him on Twitter: @conorpwilliams.