Early Childhood Education, School Finance
December 02, 2013

TESTIMONY: In Suffolk, Iannuzzi makes strong case for early-childhood education

Source: NYSUT Communications

NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi told members of the Suffolk County Legislature this morning that "reclaiming the promise of public education must start early."

Iannuzzi, a longtime Suffolk County resident, testified before the legislature's Welfare to Work Commission and discussed the need for full-day, quality early-childhood education and kindergarten.

"The ultimate goal should be to guarantee all three- and four-year olds in New York state access to high-quality full-day prekindergarten programs in public schools and early childhood programs in the community," Iannuzzi said. "All five-year-olds must be guaranteed access to full-day kindergarten programs."

NYSUT has been a longtime and ardent support of early-childhood education and supports for public kindergarten programs across the state.

Here's Iannuzzi's full testimony.

Testimony by NYSUT President Richard Iannuzzi before the Welfare to Work Commission of the Suffolk County Legislature Hearing on "Who's Minding the Kids? Meeting Challenge... Creating Opportunities for Quality Child Care in Suffolk County"

Monday, December 2, 2013

Good morning Chairperson Richard Koubeck, Vice Chairperson Kathy Liguori, and members of the Suffolk County Legislature. My name is Richard Iannuzzi, and I am a long-time resident of Suffolk County and President of NYSUT, a statewide union representing more than 600,000 members who are pre-K to 12th grade teachers, school related professionals, higher education faculty, and other professionals in education, human services and health care. It is a privilege to submit testimony on behalf of the 32,600 NYSUT members from 120 local unions who work in Suffolk County as well as the other hard working families who live and work here.

My comments will focus on the need for full-day quality, early childhood education and kindergarten. Public preschool programs can have a substantial impact on children's early learning and are a sound investment. These programs can benefit all children, especially low-income, immigrant and special needs children. Quality is essential. Financing must recognize full-day pre-K and kindergarten as a vital educational service.

What we have right now is a patchwork system of early care and education programs. Counties can serve as the connector between the families who need the services, the funders, and the programs that provide the services. It is critically important for counties, school districts, and the State to work in tandem to invest in, support, and provide a seamless array of high-quality early learning opportunities to our children with the goal of universal access. 

There is no debate that a quality early childhood education is key to children's long-term success in school and beyond. Early exposure to such programs is crucial to attaining educational equity and excellence. Quality programs help close the achievement gap. If a child enters school with deficits, it will be difficult to catch up. In fact, as much as half of school failure may be attributable to gaps in early care and development that existed before school entry. A child who starts behind is likely to stay behind. A study by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) showed that the impact of quality (whether high or low) was long-lasting, with behavior and academic problems persisting until age 15.

Young children are capable learners, and high-quality educational experiences during their preschool years make it possible for them to learn at a faster rate, become better readers and, consequently, better students. Having the benefit of rich and diverse experiences, children are better able to handle formal schooling. They succeed because they develop stronger language skills, a better sense of group work and play with other children, and other basic academic and social skills. They also have positive expectations about school and more secure relationships with adults.

Studies of the long-term effects of high quality pre-K programs show that their payback in social terms and cost-savings to the education system: higher graduation rates, lower juvenile crime, decreased need for special education services later, lower welfare dependence, and lower adolescent pregnancy rates. But low-quality care can have harmful effects on language, social development, and school performance that are more difficult to reverse, especially for children in schools with fewer resources. The positive effects from high-quality programs and the negative effects from poor-quality programs are magnified for children from low-income families or with special needs. Yet these children are least likely to have access to quality early care and education. National studies show a growing middle class gap in access to preschool.

New York State does not mandate kindergarten programs. Yet we know that one out of three children in New York State start kindergarten already behind in basic skills. While all school districts in the state currently provide a kindergarten program, full-day programs are at risk due to the budget pressures that districts are under. This year, only 8 of the 124 school districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties offered half-day kindergarten programs, but these full-day programs are threatened by the state's undemocratic property tax cap. This causes particular difficulty for poor and below-average wealth school districts that have smaller tax bases and more high-need students who need the solid foundation that universal pre-K offers. These districts will be restricted in raising local revenue to be able to serve more students than the universal pre-K funding allows.

The purpose of our public education system is to ensure that all children have the chance to succeed. A half-day program is simply insufficient - especially in high-needs communities - to properly prepare students for first grade and beyond. The importance of kindergarten has never been greater and we are asking state policymakers to advocate for lowering the mandatory attendance age to five in order to ensure that all children attend full-day kindergarten. We are urging state policymakers - the Board of Regents, the Legislature and the governor - to fund full-day kindergarten, as well as an expansion of state funding for full-day pre-K programs in their 2014-15 State Aid proposal. The Regents advocated for creating a mandatory full-day kindergarten requirement originally as part of their 2008-09 State Aid proposal. The Regents must reengage on this proposal and seeking funding for this in the 2014-15 State Aid proposal.

Currently, there is a one year incentive payment to school districts which convert to a full-day kindergarten program. NYSUT is recommending that the Board of Regents include in their 2014-15 State Aid proposal a component which would modify the current Full-day Kindergarten Conversion Aid into a permanent incentive payment to school districts when they convert to a full-day kindergarten program. This would provide school districts with an ongoing funding stream to support the operations of a full-day program.

With the cuts to school aid and to the pre-K grant, many school districts have found themselves in a position where they are creating long waiting lists while considering cutting early learning and development programs even further. In addition to pre-K funding decreasing over time, counties are cutting child care subsidies for lower income working families, thereby reducing access to services for even more children.

We need a new financing strategy that recognizes pre-kindergarten as an essential educational service. This past year the legislature provided $25 million towards the expansion of pre-K with a focus on full-day pre-K slots. While this additional funding is certainly welcome, it will do little to fulfill the promise the state made in 1997 to provide for a "Universal Prekindergarten" program. Too many New York children still do not receive the benefits of pre-K. Nearly 40% of the state's school districts are not even eligible to apply for state pre-K funding. And 75% of our pre-K students are in half-day programs, which research shows to be insufficient to meet the needs of children and their families.

Obstacles to expanding these programs include insufficient per-pupil funding, a lack of developmentally-appropriate transportation, restrictions to the ways the existing funding can be used and a requirement to maintain enrollment at the previous year's level to avoid penalization. For truly universal prekindergarten, New York must increase and set aside a steady stream of state aid for pre-K services. To accomplish this, the increased investment must be incorporated into the general state education finance system that now covers K-12 education. State aid for prekindergarten programs should be incorporated into the K-12 state education finance system, once that system has been brought up to a constitutionally adequate funding level. The new strategy will assure that pre-K funding is equitable, adequate, stable, and transparent.

The ultimate goal should be to guarantee all three and four year olds in New York State access to high-quality full-day prekindergarten programs in public schools and early childhood programs in the community. All five year olds must be guaranteed access to full-day kindergarten programs. Other requirements include appropriate class sizes, qualified teachers and administrators, support for English language learners, and rich curriculum. The funding strategy must address workforce development, transportation aid, and facilities.

Even though the pre-K grant funding has declined over the years and fewer school districts are receiving this grant, many participating school districts added local revenue to serve more children. This indicates a strong commitment from school districts to provide a solid foundation for their students, recognizing that it is the most cost effective way of providing them with the opportunity to learn. However, this commitment is now in jeopardy after the implementation of the property tax cap.

We also need to support the people who do this important work. Studies show that preschoolers' language comprehension skills are higher when their caregivers have at least an Associate of Arts degree in a child-related field. We need to establish a career ladder for the early care and education workforce and an incentive to pursue higher education. Low pay and lack of advancement result in high turnover and burnout. 

As we move toward the goal of universal access to pre-K, we have to do it right. Standards for early education, including the Common Core State Standards, must reflect the decades of research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience that tells us how young children learn. Young kids learn actively, through hands-on experiences in the real world.

We need to assess young children's progress appropriately. Years of research demonstrate that the best way to assess young children's learning is through the expertise of teachers who know how to observe and interpret children's activities and behavior and adjust their teaching. We oppose fill in the bubble standardized tests for pre-K to grade 2 because it's not developmentally appropriate.

We are hopeful that Congress will consider a landmark bipartisan bill that will help states fund high-quality prekindergarten for 4-year olds from low-income families, encourage states to support prekindergarten for 4-year-olds from moderate-income families, and encourage learning opportunities for even younger children — for example, through partnerships with Early Head Start programs. We can't rely on a patchwork of early learning programs that provide too little high-quality education to too few students. We know that early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make to prepare a child for success in school and life. When we invest in early learning, we invest in our children, our economy and our future.

High-quality prekindergarten programs also bring enormous economic benefits, and can pay for themselves. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the return on investment for every dollar spent on high-quality preschool can return as high as $8. A study of New York's pre-K program showed that the state's investment in pre-K expansion would be significantly offset by savings to the school system for future remediation, including reduction in special education and grade repetition, and higher student learning productivity.

Reclaiming the promise of public education must start early. Quality programs play a critical role in putting a child on the path to success - in school and in life - so every child should have access, not just children whose parents can afford to pay. Full-day quality pre-K and kindergarten programs have the potential to narrow the achievement gap, with long-term benefits for children, schools, taxpayers, and communities. The benefits outweigh the costs.

Counties play a critical role in determining the needs, assessing available resources and programs, and linking families and providers. Coordination between counties, school districts, and the State will ensure a rich array of high-quality early learning opportunities to our children and a solid investment in our children, our economy and our future. I would like to thank Suffolk County for taking the lead and addressing these issues.

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