State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia didn’t mince words Wednesday as she told lawmakers how she feels about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s pre-kindergarten budget proposals.
She said the governor’s proposed grant program, which would be administered by the Empire State Pre-K Grant Committee and staffed by the Office of Children and Family Services rather than the Education Department, was “destructive” and misplaced by disconnecting it from the state’s education experts.
It was her most explicit criticism of the governor’s K-12 budget proposal as she testified in front of the Legislature’s joint budget committee for well over three hours. She said it was a mistake to add yet another pre-K program to the six that already exist and instead called for a consolidation of the different programs into one statewide pre-K system administrated by the Education Department.
“If you are thinking you have a consistent pre-K system across New York state, you don’t,” she told lawmakers.
At one point, Sen. Catharine Young, R-Olean, asked her to explain the governor’s proposed pre-K program.
“It’s difficult to explain,” Elia answered. “I believe we should have all the work done on pre-K in one place; pre-K is pre-kindergarten and should be connected to the work done on kindergarten.”
Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, said she agreed “philosophically” with Elia about creating a single pre-K program for 4-year-olds across the state but cautioned that it would be politically treacherous if such a merger resulted in “winners and losers.”
Elia was also critical of the governor’s plans to spend $22 million to expand pre-K programs to 3-year-olds in the state’s highest needs districts, urging lawmakers to ensure every 4-year-old in the state was in a pre-K program before expanding to younger kids.
Some of the education advocates who testified later in the hearing agreed with the commissioner’s assessment. Jim Viola, of the school administrators association, said he opposed the grant committee because it would add another layer of bureaucracy and politicize funding decisions.
“We feel it is premature to hoist the flag for pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds and go to 3-year-olds,” Viola said.