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Time for change: Gov. Eliot Spitzer delivers his policy speech Monday.

Going Back to Pre-School

After years of stagnation, New York’s universal prekindergarten looks to be revived

 

By the year 2000, New York’s state-supported universal-prekindergarten program—a plan developed three years prior—had earned national recognition as a model for early-childhood education. Shortly thereafter, years of relatively flatline funding followed by sluggish growth and low student participation caused the effort to decline into a standstill that has resulted in a program that has yet to attain its promise of universal availability.

Gov. Eliot Spitzer promised to breathe new life, and dollars, into the prekindergarten program during a policy speech Monday at the State Education Building.

“One of the core features of our new four-year investment plan will be to establish universal access to quality pre-kindergarten education,” Spitzer said before he was silenced by rounds of applause from the standing-room-only audience. “We know that effective preschool education can help make all children ready to learn the day they start school, and, more importantly, can help close the enormous gap facing children in poverty.”

Spitzer pledged to make “quality” prekindergarten programs “available to every child who needs it within the next four years.”

It’s a promise state residents have heard before. In 1997, the state’s initial universal prekindergarten plan called for a four-year phase-in period. During the first year of the program, 62 participating school districts utilized funding that totaled about $56 million, a figure that was supposed to grow to as much as $500 million by the fourth year. Instead, funding reached less than $300 million today.

Kathy Schimke is a co-convener of Winning Beginning NY, an advocacy coalition for early-childhood education. She estimated that approximately 79,000 preschool-age children currently are enrolled in the state’s programs, which includes both universal prekindergarten and a smaller, targeted-prekindergarten program that is specifically designed for disadvantaged children. If prekindergarten became truly universal, she said, nationwide trends show that about three-quarters of the total number of 4-year-olds (about 420,000 in New York) would be enrolled by their parents.

New York’s universal prekindergarten legislation does not require communities and school districts to offer prekindergarten, but rather allows them to choose whether to opt into the program. Currently about one quarter of the state’s school districts provide prekindergarten programs, but additional and continually growing state funding would allow more districts the opportunity to create their own programs, Schimke said.

Spitzer seemed to be making good on his promise to increase prekindergarten availability through increased funding Wednesday, when he announced his first budget proposal. The budget included an increase of $99 million for universal prekindergarten and a call for the total sum of state prekindergarten funding to grow to $645 million by 2010.

“The fact is that many, many districts through the years have wanted to provide prekindergarten, but they felt that it was such an insecure program—the battles every year in the budget and so forth—and so a lot of schools said ‘I’m not going there until I can depend on it,’ ” Schimke said. “For school districts, the worst thing you can do is put something out there for your kids and then take it away.”

During his campaign, and now as governor, Spitzer has reiterated the message of proponents of prekindergarten, who note numerous advantages to preschool programs, including their ability to better prepare students for traditional school, to minimize behavioral problems, to reduce rates of teen pregnancy, and to reduce the demand for welfare and unemployment assistance.

Members of the New York chapter of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which also advocates for universal prekindergarten, cited the correlation between preschool programs and a reduction in criminal behavior as reason for their support.

“Pre-k is a program that law enforcement leaders are very, very strongly in favor of because they know that the best way to prevent crime is to get kids off to a good start from the beginning and keep them on track until they become productive, competent citizens,” said Meredith Wiley, state director of the organization, which is a coalition of law enforcement leaders and violence survivors.

Nearly all states now publicly fund prekindergarten programs of some sort, and the movement toward universal prekindergarten is increasing action and debate. In New York and across the national map, throughout these debates, opposition to prekindergarten programming has been the exception more than the rule.

Diane Flynn Keith is the founder of UniversalPreschool.com, an online forum for those who oppose universal preschool programs.

“I realized that the intention is to promote early education in young children, which is a good thing,” Keith said, “but, unfortunately, once the government gets involved there is accountability for government funds to private hands.” The need for government accountability could result in states testing preschool students for performance, she said.

Keith also is concerned that even though prekindergarten programs are never introduced as mandatory, encouragement for parents to enroll their children will eventually result in a mandate, similar to the national movement to require kindergarten.

Finally, Keith points to research that reveals a fade-out in the difference between students who attended preschool programs and those who did not after only a couple years.

—Nicole Klaas

nklaas@metroland.net


What a Week

No Appetite, and No High

Britain’s GW Pharmaceutical Company is developing a new obesity-fighting drug derived from marijuana. Although the plant is usually associated with stimulating appetite, the GW managing director assures that cannabis has “70 different cannabinoids,” and that not all of them affect the body that same way. The drug will include only those components of cannabis that have been shown to suppress appetite in tests. GW plans to begin human trials in the next few months, and expects the drug to be approved by the FDA before the end of the year. It sounds like the stuff of pot lovers’ dreams, but it’s not: THC—Tetrahydrocannabinol, the main psychoactive chemical in marijuana—will be absent from the drug.

Tower Time?

The death of a Brooklyn man stranded on the Northway in the Adirondacks has rallied state politicians to push for cell phone towers along the highway in the northern part of the state, much of which is a no-reception zone for cell phones. Sen. Martin Golden (R-Brooklyn) told the Times Union he supports a subsidy to make it economically feasible for cell-phone companies to build towers in the largely unpopulated area (New York state, cell-phone companies and environmental groups have not yet been able to agree on the design for a tower plan). Alfred Langer, 63, froze to death after he and his wife went off the road early Friday morning in below-zero temperatures. A state trooper found the car 32 hours after it went off the road. His wife, Barbara Langer, 59, is currently hospitalized and is expected to fully recover.

Making Money the YouTube Way

Internet sensation YouTube, which was sold to Google last year for $1.65 billion, has announced plans to share its revenue with users. YouTube CEO Chad Hurley told the World Economic Forum that he felt it was time to share advertising profits with users who upload videos to the site. He did not discolose how payment amounts would be determined, but more details are expected soon, and the program is expected to be in place later this year. YouTube receives approximately 70 million video plays per day and has led who knows how many users to believe they are either a rock star or a comedian.



The Up-and-Up

Groups oppose expected rise in state’s campaign-contribution limits, which are already the highest in nation

Poised to go even higher, the limit on individual campaign contributions in New York state is “absolutely outrageous,” said Barbara Bartoletti, legislative director of the New York State League of Women Voters. “Certainly something needs to be done.”

The League of Women Voters has joined with Common Cause and New York Public Interest Research Group to call attention to the automatic increase, tied to the consumer-price index, and to hold Gov. Eliot Spitzer to his promise to work to lower the limit on contributions to state candidates.

Estimates released by the three groups conclude that, without new legislation, Democratic candidates for statewide office facing a primary in 2010 will be able to receive up to $55,800 from a single individual. By contrast, the new limit for U.S. presidential candidates is only $4,600 from an individual—$2,300 for a primary and another $2,300 for the general election.

New York currently has the highest contribution limits of any state that sets such limits. Gov. Spitzer said in a speech in early January that he plans to “replace the weakest campaign-finance laws in the nation with the strongest.”

“This is one of the things he campaigned on,” said Bartoletti. “This is part of his reform agenda. We do certainly maintain confidence that the governor said what he meant and meant what he said. We feel not only confident in the governor but in the Legislature also. If they are going to consider themselves reformers, which everyone has over the last several years wanted to claim that they are, then certainly this is an area they need to clean up, and clean up thoroughly.”

Rachel Leon, executive director of New York’s branch of Common Cause, agreed. “We need to see a strong proposal from the governor, and then an agreement from the Legislature to dramatically lower the contribution limits,” she said. “It’s definitely a goal that [Spitzer] has articulated. Now it’s time for the Legislature to act.”

The groups are also calling on Spitzer and the state Legislature to close loopholes in the law. Limited-liability companies are considered an individual as far as contribution limits are concerned, and loopholes allow smaller corporations owned by a single large corporation to each have its own limit. Many other loopholes exist.

“This law is already more loophole than law,” said Leon.

The eventual goal of the groups is for public funding of state elections. “We see it as a long-term goal,” said Bartoletti. “This governor has said that it is his ultimate goal. So we certainly intend to hold him to that promise.”

The formula used to determine the contribution limit is one-half cent for each voter enrolled in a party, to a cap. Because the Republican Party is at neither the cap nor the baseline, it will not see a change in statewide primary election limits.

The limits are shifted every four years in accordance with the consumer-price index, which rose 11.6 percent between December 2002 and December 2006. Leon questions the message this sends.

“If you look at an issue like minimum wage—that’s not indexed to inflation. We have the highest limits of any state that has limits, and they get indexed to inflation, and we have minimum wage workers who don’t get indexed to inflation. So what kind of message are we sending about our democracy?”

Official contribution limits are expected to be released by the State Board of Elections today (Thursday, Feb. 1).

—David Canfield


A Toxic Education?

Charter-school plans raise old concerns that the proposed site is contaminated

Albany Common Councilman Mich-ael O’Brien (Ward 12) says he doesn’t think Brighter Choice’s plan to build a charter school on the lot at 60 Colvin Ave. in Albany is a good one. Why? According to O’Brien, the last time people tried to build a school in that location they found a number of carcinogens and toxic metals.

“In 2001, when the school district was doing its ground explorations, they discovered hazardous materials,” O’Brien claimed. “They found some real nasty stuff there. They found it both on 60 Colvin and at the edge of Westland Hills Park.”

But Christian Bender, CEO of Brighter Choice, insists that the contaminated land that O’Brien is referring to is not part of the 60 Colvin Ave. property.

“He is confused,” said Bender of O’Brien. “We have done a thorough environmental study on that site. It is contiguous to a site that is questionable, but the land that he is referring to is actually further into the park. The site we are looking to develop is not part of the park. I believe he is talking about land that is in the park.” Documents show that the contamination was discovered near, if not on, the proposed 60 Colvin Ave. site.

In 2001, the city of Albany had a plan to build a middle school at 60 Colvin Ave. During the approval process, citizens began raising concerns about environmental pollution and possible asbestos at the site, which had once been a scrapyard. After taking soil samples, Clough Harbor and Associates discovered that a plot of soil about 100 feet wide, 250 feet long and 9 feet deep was contaminated with a number of carcinogens. The contaminated area that is located in the Westland Hills Park also turned up higher-than-normal readings of elements including barium, lead, and mercury. Eventually, the Albany School District’s plan was scrapped.

“The 60 Colvin Ave. site that Brighter Choice wants to put its charter school on is similar to a site that the school district was going to build on years ago and declined to do,” says O’Brien. “What I found interesting, was when the school district was looking at it, they did testing and found nasty stuff—zinc, lead, arsenic. Brighter Choice submitted a plan, and it is really curious that they are totally silent about stuff that was found before. They only say they found trace amounts of methochloride. So where did the rest of it go?”

O’Brien said that whether the contamination is under the school lot or near it, he thinks there should be concern, and that a thorough State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) should be undertaken to ensure that there is no major contamination before the project is approved. Asked whether he was concerned about building a school next to a site that has been found to have been contaminated, Bender noted that the scope of the contamination in the park had yet to be fully assessed.

“The levels of contamination have yet to be really, fully fleshed out,” he said. “Contamination could be anything from a small amount of petroleum to something much more ominous. And I don’t think anyone really knows what it amounts to. We do know from title work from around there that there was a scrap yard there, and, I mean, I don’t think it is inconsistent with a lot of scrapyards.”

O’Brien said he thinks Brighter Choice ordered studies that were superficial so that they could quickly push through approval for the site. “In August, Brighter Choice filed an application with the zoning board, and it was really terse on the whole check-off about the environmental stuff. It was checked off, ‘no, no, no, not needed.’ ”

Bender insists the last thing he is doing is trying to rush to build on a contaminated area. “We are not approved yet. We haven’t made a final determination. We will take all that into consideration before we make a final decision. We have environmental engineers to answer those questions about that site that we intend to buy. But there is nothing on the site. We had the engineers go back after he [O’Brien] first raised the concern. We have no interest in building a school on a contaminated site.”

Joe Cuniff, of the Upper Washington Avenue Neighborhood Association, said that the process feels rushed to him, with or without talk about contamination. Cuniff worried that the planned school will clog an already busy traffic area, and will see the children from the school crowding into the nearby public park for recreation. Cuniff insists a full SEQR should be completed so that a school isn’t built only to have the students “sitting on top of a pile of pollution, pretending it is not there.”

Cuniff and O’Brien insisted that the community needs more than a notice from the zoning board, and two minutes to speak at the public meeting, to come to terms with a new school in their area. Residents of the South End and Common Councilman Dominick Calosolaro (Ward 1) recently spoke out about their frustrations over Brighter Choice’s plan to build a school in their neighborhood.

“Neighbors are upset that no one came to them ahead of time,” said Calsolaro. “No one is sure what the plans are. They didn’t have that ahead of time and that’s disturbing to people who have been living for 10 to 20 years in the same house and all of a sudden there is a new proposal to disrupt your lives.”

Bender, however, insisted that Brighter Choice has gone about both applications in a proper fashion.

“We are operating within requirements of the city. They are not receptive to change. It is something that is very difficult. I just ask them to keep an open mind. It is the eighth project we have done in the city. We have consistently addressed concerns that came up.”

“What almost makes this humorous,” noted O’Brien, is that the city of Albany is currently looking into applying for a $400,000 grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation to clean up the contamination found in Westland Hills Park, some of which he said spills over onto 60 Colvin Ave.

Calls to the planning board were not returned in time for this story.

—David King

dking@metroland.net



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