As the conversation over funding for Universal Pre-Kindergarten continues in political circles and budget debates, our office is introducing legislation to assure that as we go forward, Pre-K programs, widely recognized as critical for educational equity, are truly universal and that three and four year olds with special needs are included in both the programming and in the funding.
This important state policy change would be a win-win-win that will improve educational and social outcomes for these children, create a smoother transition for families and school districts, and relieve our counties of millions of dollars of unfunded state mandates that they have shouldered for too long. In Dutchess County, for example, this would represent nearly $8.5 million in annual savings.
In 2012, some 80,000 three and four year olds received special education services in New York State, but not alongside their more developed peers. This is despite federal policy that provides that children with disabilities receive their education, to the maximum extent appropriate, with non-disabled peers. Research shows that ‘inclusion’ classrooms provide significant benefits for special needs students. They encourage developmental and intellectual success—sometimes to the point that kids grow out of their need for special services. The benefits extend to the classroom community, as well, allowing for greater understanding and tolerance of different abilities and learning styles from a very young age.
Today, New York state operates three different pre-kindergarten systems: One for special needs children based on determination by local school districts, administered through local health departments and paid for by county and state dollars; the second system, for mainstream 3- and 4-year-olds, is run by the State Education Department (SED) and funded by the school districts and the state; and the third is the private school system, largely parent financed. These multiple systems result in unequal, splintered and unbalanced service delivery to New York’s preschool children, especially those with special needs.
At the time this system of services was created, counties were promised the state would cover 75 percent of the costs of preschool education for 3- to 5-year-olds. However, the state never fulfilled this commitment. According to the New York State Association of Counties, our counties along with New York City, contribute 40.5 percent, which in 2014-15 translated to $710 million out of the $1.8 billion program, $260 million of which fell on the counties outside of New York City.
Pre-K services for children with special needs are the only piece of the education continuum that is run by counties and not by SED. As we set a goal of Universal Pre K, this is the right time for the Preschool Special Education program to be transferred to SED and local school districts and be fully funded in the next round of UPK funding. Counties are not equipped to, nor should they be required to, be in the business of educating our children.
New York State owes it to children of all abilities, and the families that love and nurture them, to ensure that their education is a priority worth funding.