Transcript: Mayor de Blasio Hosts Press Conference on Universal Pre-Kindergarten at The Union Johnson Early Learning Center

January 6, 2014

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Thank you so much, Vinnie, and thank you for your extraordinary leadership of the labor movement of this city. Thank you to this all-star team of labor leaders here. And I want to talk about, in a moment, what it means to have this extraordinary assemblage. This is not something you see every day, and there's a reason why there's such unity and purposefulness. Let me just say a couple of other things before I get to that, first of all, happy Three Kings' Day everybody.

[Applause]

We're in a place where – part of our city where this a very, very important day and I want to wish a very happy Three Kings' Day to all. But, you know, I never tell a lie, Hector's going to help me with my exact phrasing. What is the salutation today?

32BJ SEIU President Hector Figueroa: [inaudible]

[Mayor speaks in Spanish]

Now, I want to thank the Union Settlement Association. You know, this – the settlement movement I spoke about at one of our previous press conferences, the settlement movement changed the face of this city over the last hundred years and more. And we walk in the footsteps of that movement. It was the settlement movement that really helped the people of this city to understand what we had to do for our children; what we had to do for those who were less fortunate; what we had to do to reform our society and make it more fair.

It influenced fundamentally the people who became the change agents. I was struck in my never-ending pursuit of knowledge – a story I read for the first time in the book City of Ambition, which is about the relationship between Franklin Roosevelt and Fiorello La Guardia, that some people would ultimately be key figures in the New Deal, like Francis Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt knew the settlement movement well, knew the settlement houses – Franklin Roosevelt did not.  And so one day, I think it was in 1911, Eleanor Roosevelt set up a date for Franklin Roosevelt to come pick her up and meet her somewhere and she made sure it was at a settlement house so he would actually have to experience something that his own personal upbringing had not taught him. And it was according at least to this rendition, a pivotal moment in his growth and development.

So, it's an honor to be in a settlement house because so much of the progressive history of this city, this state, this nation came out of this movement. I want to thank the executive director here, David Nocenti, for his excellent work. This particular organization has been open since 1895, has focused on education, on health and wellness and community building programs for the people of East Harlem ever since.

I'm now going to exhibit math skills. That is 119 years, since it's now 2014, and that's pretty extraordinary. And this center serves the people of the community from the youngest to the oldest, so here you will find Head Start and pre-k and you'll also find Meals on Wheels, you'll find the whole – the whole range, and that's why this type of organization is so crucial to our city.

Now, to the folks assembled here. These individuals, leaders in New York City labor movement, represent 1.3 million working people. That is roughly one in every 18 residents of New York state.

That says a lot to begin with. Then when you think about their families; and you think about their organization; and you think about their presence in Albany, it speaks volumes – how powerful their voices are. A lot of people up here with me are well-known figures in our city, people who are respected and listened to, important progressive voices as individual leaders.

Don't for a moment miss the fact that their memberships alone have a huge impact on the course of things, as they should in a democracy, and then their organizational capacity takes it even further. So, when you see the whole cross-section of the labor movement here in common cause, people should recognize this is an important moment and a very unusual moment and something is going on here that's powerful.

And I'll tell you one of the things you have to understand – I think some of the speakers alluded to this, folks who work all day long to try and create economic fairness that's what everyone up here does. If I had to summarize their missions in one sentence, their jobs are to create economic fairness. That's what, you know, contracts that guarantee wages and benefits mean. That's what making sure that people have economic stability is all about. That's how the labor movement was created and what it does for our city, state, and nation every single day.

But also, every labor union member who has a family, that family has their own needs. Now, a lot of people, despite the best efforts of labor unions, still they're not getting rich at the jobs they do. So, the notion that their kids could get free full-day pre-k and free after school – in a lot of hard-working families, that's a huge game-changer for those families. And again, it's not just a member. Go to any one of these unions, have them introduce you to some of their members and then have the members introduce to their extended family, their neighbors, everyone that they live with and around, and they'll all tell you what it means for the children in their neighborhood to get full-day pre-k and to get after school guaranteed.

So, this is about the labor leaders of this city expressing what they know the facts on the ground are in this city and how transcendent this would be. So, I think it is no surprise to anyone that I have made a centerpiece of my campaign and now a centerpiece of my administration that we will pass this tax in Albany to guarantee full-day pre-k for every child in this city, and to guarantee after school for every middle school child. I will repeat it and repeat it and repeat it again until it's done.

We know the people on our side, the people on our side in New York City – we've seen that not just in polling, we saw that in the electoral mandate that I received. We know the people of the state are on our side. Go look at the recent polling, the Quinnipiac and Siena polls, extraordinarily consistent results all over the state of the support for this initiative. We know the facts are on our side and my colleagues delineate it.

There's really very few areas in society where you can find such a consensus. Some people are still arguing that there isn't global warming. People can argue over trickle-down economics, they can argue about a lot of things. You don't find a lot of people arguing about the value of full-day pre-k or the value of after school. I want to really put a point on that. This is an area where there's an extraordinary consensus that, yes, this is something that really works and makes a difference. So, now we're just talking about the how and the when and how we pay for it. And that's part of why you see this extraordinary unity.

Here in this facility, quality pre-k is happening right now. Kids are benefiting right now and getting that start they deserve. And this state-of-the-art facility, in terms of the early child education component, opened last year, serves over 40 children in three classrooms, but, here's the kicker, they could serve more. Right, David?

Unknown: Absolutely.

Mayor: They could serve more. Right down the hall there are two, I'm sorry, an empty classroom that's ready to go. There's another empty classroom on a nearby site, so there's two empty classrooms that could be put into play for pre-k kids if the funding were there. That's what's missing, the funding, and that's what our job is – is to address that gap and fill it.

Now, a few weeks ago we had a gathering in Brooklyn. Leaders from the business community, the civil rights community, academia, advocacy organizations and the arts, and we launched UPKNYC.

There was a lot of energy in that room. People got ready for the effort ahead to win this – today, joined by leaders of 25 organizations, as I said, with a tremendous depth and reach across the five boroughs and, in fact, all over the state. And with their members they will reach our elected officials. They will get the message out and it will be decisive.

I want to thank all of the individual unions. I want to thank the Central Labor Council. I want to thank the Working Families Party, everyone who's a part of this coalition. And I know their efforts will make a huge impact. I think everyone gathered around me is no stranger to the hallways of Albany, New York. They know a thing or two about getting their message out. And that will be a tremendous benefit for our children to have all these leaders on their side. I want you to understand every single person up here is now an advocate for children. They may be labor leaders by day, but they are going to also be putting their shoulders to the wheel to advocate for our children.

I've said this is not just a question of educational opportunity; it is an economic justice question. We are at the high-water mark of human history in terms of the importance of education for one's economic destiny. 30, 40 years ago, you might have not have needed the best quality education to be able to get a solid middle-class job, but today, more and more, if you don't have a high quality education your economic prospects are limited. We don't extend educational opportunity to every child, we are literally allowing a certain number of our fellow New Yorkers to fall behind and stay behind. And we simply will not tolerate that. That's why this is so crucial.

We're asking the wealthy to do a little more. We know they can handle it. Take a look at the stock market lately if you have any questions about the fact that the wealthy are doing very, very well. And we applaud their success, but we think it's fair to ask them to do a little to help us, and I could go back to my small soy latte if you would like.

And we know that so many people who are wealthy acknowledge the fact – a strong economy is based on a thriving school system, again, more than any point before in history. Giving every child a chance to get their education off on the right foot from the earliest age not only guarantees them a better education, it has been shown to lead to greater economic success, healthier lives, and a better chance of breaking the cycle of poverty. And I know we all believe that that must be done for every New Yorker.

And we're asking this of the wealthy because there are too many working parents in this city today who have to go through the challenge of not knowing that their kids are safe and secure while they're still at work. It's a fundamental reality. Too many parents working hard, doing everything right, playing by the rules, but not having the security of knowing their kids are in a safe secure location getting that additional help.

I loved what Peter Ward said and I appreciated that testimony, that when kids get that chance, a little recreation, some tutoring, some support and they're safe, it is a game-changer. Too many parents in this city wish they could have that for their kids and instead have to wonder are their kids safe and secure each day.

Some may have access to informal care, but it's not the same quality. Some wish they could have care but they can't afford it for their kids. We want to fix that. We want to give peace of mind to these parents. We want them to know that their kids will have a good option.

So, I want to thank the women and men of the labor movement assembled here today. I want to thank them for everything they're going to do to inform and mobilize their members, their 1.3 million members. I want to thank them for everything they will do to shed a light for our elected officials in Albany and show them how important this will be. Again, small tax on the wealthiest New Yorkers will make full-day pre-k for all and after school for every middle school student a reality. A small tax on the wealthy makes this a reality for all these children.

Now, a moment, since especially because it's –

[Mayor speaks in Spanish]

Unknown: [inaudible]

[Mayor Speaks in Spanish]

Unknown: [inaudible]

Mayor: M-A-G

Unknown: The wisemen.

Mayor: M-A-G-O-S.

Unknown: Yes.

Mayor: Reyes magos.

Unknown: Yes.

Mayor: El dia de los reyes magos.

Unknown: [inaudible]

Mayor: Yes.

[Laughter]

[Mayor speaks in Spanish]

Mayor: And with that – I’m working on it guys. I’m working on it.

Thank you very much.

With that, I’m going to just note that this is our first press conference of two today. Just can’t stop hanging out with you guys. And today we will stay – let me say this, this press conference we’re going to stay just on this topic. At the second press conference we will talk about that topic and general questions. So, we’re right now on topic only.

Question: Okay. Mr. Mayor, so while you’re advocating –

Mayor: No entiendo.

[Laughter]

Question: No?

Mayor: That was a joke. That was a joke, just having a light moment.

Question: So while you’re advocating for a tax, at the same moment in Albany, Governor Cuomo is giving an announcement with a banner – ‘Cutting Taxes For New Yorkers’. Is this the beginning of a face-off between you and the governor in the next few weeks? And was it – because this press conference was supposed to start at 10:00, was it a calculated move on your part to take the podium at 11:00, the time when the governor scheduled his own press conference in Albany?

Mayor: You give us such credit, thank you. The truth and nothing but the truth is we had hoped to do this a little earlier, not in the day but in the administration, and then there was a little snow situation. So, no, it has no particular design as you indicate. On the question before us, look, we’ve said throughout that there is a very clear history. The last three Mayors went to Albany and asked for the opportunity simply to raise revenue here among our own people, and in fact, in all three cases Albany granted them that chance. And we expect to see continuity. It was the right thing to do for my three predecessors, it’s the right thing to do for me and the people of the City of New York right now, that’s point one. Second, I respect the governor – everyone knows. I spent three years of my life, I had the honor of working for him. I consider him an ally and a friend, and we’re going to work together very well. He has a vision for state taxes and I respect that vision. We’re talking about the ability of the people of New York City to tax ourselves. This is about city taxes, not state taxes. It’s simply Albany acknowledging our ability and respecting our ability to tax ourselves. So, we think with the kind of support we’re seeing here, and in fact around the state, that there will be a groundswell that will lead to the passage of our plan in April. And we respect that the governor is pursuing what he thinks is right in terms of the state budget. Dave?

Question: Mayor, you talk about how much support you have not just in the city but statewide for this. Yet at the same time, Michael and a lot of other people have talked about this is going to be a heavy lift in Albany. So my question is, have you gotten an indication from anyone in Albany, be it Dean Skelos, the other Republicans, or someone whose action on this is no, we’re opposed to it? So who’s against it?

Mayor: Well, I think we’ve seen universally, the governor’s comments on the goals; Senator Skelos’ comments on the goals; Senator Klein; Senator Stewart-Cousins. I think there’s actually a very strong consensus that this is a moment in our history where we have to attend to this issue. The governor has spoken passionately in his own presentations on this issue. The president of the United States has said this needs to be a priority. So, now we’re talking about how to get it done. I don’t think anyone is doubting the value of the goal, and I’ve had cordial and positive discussions with each of those four people. And I want to say that Senator Klein and Senator Stewart-Cousins have been outspoken in support of this plan, and both joined me at Gracie Mansion yesterday. Obviously, Speaker Silver has been outspoken in support of this plan. So, I think that there’s no dichotomy, Dave, between saying we expect a – we have to mount a very strong effort together, and with all the advocates, the business leaders, everyone supporting us. We don’t think it will be easy, but we think we will be victorious because we think the support is growing all the time. And we don’t think anyone doubts that the goal is the right goal. It’s a very typical reality in government that people may share certain goals and still might disagree on how to get there. But we think there’s a growing consensus on the goal, we think there’s a groundswell growing on the how to get there, and we expect to prevail.

Question: Mayor, then who is saying no? That’s my question.

Mayor: Again, Dave, I think the bottom line is that there is a process ahead over these next three months, and we are going to build support. You know plenty, I think everyone in this room knows plenty about the legislative process. Until everyone agrees to the specifics of our plan, we’re not done. But we believe we can build that support. Yes, Jonathan?

Question: There was a report last night that Governor Cuomo in the State of the State this week is going to announce that he has found money in the state budget to fund Universal Pre-K, it would be a recurring dedicated stream. If that’s the case, would you still advocate for this tax increase? And if so, what would you support?

Mayor: With all due respect to my colleagues in the media, we don’t accept reports in the media as the same as what the governor is going to say. The governor has not said that to me, I have no verification that that’s what he’s going to propose, so I’m not going to comment on anything until I hear from the governor and his team what their intentions are. I look forward to working with them on this and many issues, but I’m not going to show a lack of respect and take a supposition as something to comment on.

Question: Will you be attending the State of the State?

Mayor: Absolutely, I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to it. Yes?  

Question: Can you talk about your conversations with uncommitted lawmakers and what you’re saying to them and what they – how they may be summoned?

Mayor: Well I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I do not divulge my private conversations, I don’t think that’s a good way to get things done and build respect with people. I simply believe in all the conversations I’ve had with folks who are not yet there, that there is a great starting point. No one doubts that full-day pre-k and after school would make a huge difference for our children. And I respect people who might have differences of opinion on the question of taxation, but I remind everyone involved – this is us, New York City residents, asking for the right to make our own decision on this. I think we deserve that right. I think we deserve that right on many, many fronts. And history suggests that, in the past, legislatures understood that and respected it. Yes?

Question: Why – just following up on John’s question – Jonathan’s questions, but if there was funding found in the state budget – general budget for Universal Pre-K statewide, would you declare victory that Universal Pre-K is coming here? I mean, here there’s a focus on the taxing –

Mayor: Yeah, you guys have asked this – now this is probably the 412th time of a variation on a theme. I’m going to go over this again. We have a goal. We believe in this goal. We believe it’s the right thing to do. We are sticking to this goal. We’re not going to bargain against ourselves, we’re not going to water down our goal. There’s a very specific reason why. This is dedicated funding for five years. We don’t want to do this year-by-year; we don’t want half measures; we don’t want partial funding. We believe that $530 million is what we need, each and every year, for five years. And we believe this is a fair and just way to do it. And if there’s other resources available in Albany, I assure you, we have plenty of other needs for them in our schools and beyond. So, this is the right thing to do for our children and has tremendous popular support. And we are going to exactly pursue this plan. Yes?

Question: Yes. Mr. Mayor, the funding that you’re looking to get, what exactly will you fund? Would it be pre-k in every public school and charter schools, all throughout the city or in certain areas of the city? How far does it go?

Mayor: Yes, so let me start with the goal and then talk a little bit about the mechanics for just a moment. And I – I know what I don’t know, which is a very good characteristic in life, but I have for 14 years been a public school parent; for three years of my life as a community school board member; for eight years of my life I was a member of the education committee of the New York City Council. And obviously, I made education a central focus in my four years as Public Advocate. So at least I got some of this right. On the goal, the goal is that every single child, at pre-k age, has full-day pre-k available to them in a reasonable – within a reasonable distance of their home. That does not mean every child at pre-k age – every family will choose to take advantage of it. But it should be available, no wait-lists, no you have to go ten miles away. It should be available locally for every single family. If you talk to families that have been wait-listed; if you talk to families that were trying to build, you know, their – their schedule, their lives around the hope that they could get full-day pre-k, and they ended up with nothing. They ended up, maybe, with a seat far, far away. They ended up with half-day, which I think I can appeal to the working members of the press, if your child had from 8:30 to 11:30, that doesn’t necessarily solve your problem. And it also doesn’t give them the support and the education that they need as that foundation – and the same with afterschool. Afterschool makes a crucial difference for the kids, but it also makes a crucial difference for the parents in terms of their lives. Parents who – and this is a – I’ve got a panel of experts here. People are working longer hours than ever before. People are working two jobs who used to work one job. You’ve got two-income families that that can mean three or four jobs to achieve those two incomes. The need for parents to have a greater safety net, to have more security, to have more reliability for their kids is greater than ever in, literally, in our history. So, we’re saying for every middle school child, it’s up to the family if they want to take advantage of it. But there would be a guaranteed after school seat, example 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm would be very typical. Maybe it’s at their school, or maybe it’s at a nearby non-profit or library. Moment on the mechanics, take the afterschool, right now we’re very confident between the school facilities, the libraries, and the non-profits, many of which have done after-school or are doing it now, that we can get that – you know, up to a very high level very quickly, looking ahead to September 2014, September this year. On the pre-k, we know that there are some schools right now where we have additional classroom capacity. We know there are some non-profits, as in the one you’re in here that have additional classroom capacity. We know there’s pre-k centers that were downsized in the Bloomberg administration that have additional capacity. So, we are going to take stock of all that and then be able to come back with a very firm number of how many seats that we can make available for year one. We also know that what it takes to put more seats up is not rocket science, it’s leasing, which it could be a former Catholic school building, it could be some other type of building. The conversion is not that difficult. The School Construction Authority is very good at it. We will in some cases, create new pre-k centers for a neighborhood. I’ll use my own neighborhood as an example. If you put a pre-k center near my house, it would serve P.S. 10, P.S. 107, P.S. 39, P.S. 321, P.S. 124; could all – within literally half a mile, be served by a single pre-k center, which would also take some pressure off the space in those buildings so they could, hopefully, use that additional space to help push down class size and do other important things. So, we know that the creation of a pre-k center is not magical and mystical. We know exactly how to do it. Some could even be ready for September 2014. I’m sure a number will be ready for September 2015. Our job with our working group is to lay out those exact facts as they develop in the coming weeks. But I’m very confident that a huge percentage of the kids we ultimately hope to serve will be served starting September 2014. Yes?

Question: Just two questions. The first is, what happens after five years when the funding goes away?

Mayor: I – in fact, if you go back, I said this in my original speech on this topic, September 2012. We are – we believe five years is enough time to get this fully operational, and we also believe it’s fair to ensure, after that point, that we find additional resources within our existing budget. We think we’re going to continually work – we know we’re going to continually work for cost savings in our budget. We hope to find, you know, new revenue by more, for example, effective collection of taxes and other methodologies. So the goal going forward is to make sure that this is up and running and full and strong and then it will no longer be necessary to fund it through taxation. And there is good precedent in this town for that type of model working. The tax gets you started, then you go back to conventional funding mechanisms.

Question: And the second question for Mr. Mulgrew, a month ago you said you were still sort of on the fence. You said that there still needs to be some details of Mayor de Blasio’s plan before I sign onto it. So what’s your –

Michael Mulgrew, President of the United Federation of Teachers: Well, my skepticism was coming from what I said earlier. I – we’ve have heard this as educators for generations. And when I sat down with Mayor de Blasio’s staff, their breadth and understanding of the mechanics, the nuts and bolts of this, was really what our concern was. And you could tell by what the Mayor just said that they really have engaged themselves in a meaningful way and try to not just figure out the funding source, but figure out how to make this work for the entire city. So, now that we are very, very not only just comfortable but we’re extremely supportive that we’re going to be able to get this done. As long as we all push this plan through, we will be able to make this a reality for all the families of New York City.

Mayor: Michael?

Question: I just, again, what – I’m wondering why you limited the definition of dedicated funding to this specific pledge of your campaign? Why would adding more money to the state budget not be seen as sustainable?

Mayor: Again, have you ever been in government, Michael?

[Laughter]

Mayor: Look, some of my colleagues said something that’s profoundly important. When the budget cuts come, children are often the first to take the hit. The vulnerable take the hit. Look, there’s a rich painful history of this. So, when we think about sustained funding, dedicated funding, we think about first of all, the reliability in terms of planning and performance that comes from having that dedicated funding. But second, we know the history. We know if it is not protected, it will be fought over each and every year – and that’s not good, that’s not healthy for our children. Again, if the state has additional resources, there are many other appropriate things that need to be addressed and things that New York City has been waiting for for a long time. But this is a fair approach. My central supposition here is that we’re asking very little of the wealthy – you know, that the local tax rate for that 500,000-up goes from 3.9 percent to 4.4 percent for just five years. The soy latte – the small soy latte analogy is powerful. We know it’s a fair amount to ask those who are doing well. We know it will have a huge impact. And I’ve talked to a lot of folks who happen to be wealthy, and by the way, what I hear consistently – tremendous concern about education. One thing I think we can safely say, those who have done well who become philanthropically involved or civically involved, very high percentage focus on education, which I commend them for. We’ve heard a lot of agreement that early childhood education and after school are among the things where there’s a true consensus, including from those who we would ask to help pay for this. And the fact that it’s a dedicated tax is reassuring to many people – that it’s not fungible, it’s not moveable, it’s not for other things than education, it’s just for these two things and it will remain just for these two things. So, all of that is the reason why we need it in this form. Yes, Melissa?

Question: Mr. Mayor, Governor Cuomo has repeatedly said when asked about this subject that he’s planning to do UPK anyway – that regardless of how we pay for it, Universal Pre-K is in the works from Albany. Do you have a sense of what that plan entails and whether or not to meets the scope of what you’re trying to accomplish? And I ask this because I think the governor when asked today, they say, again, we’re doing Universal Pre-K but we don’t think we need to raise taxes –

Mayor: Let me – let me be clear. I will always tell you – and I have just the greatest respect for the governor and I’m very convinced that we’re going to do a lot of great work together. He has made a very clear priority of pre-k, and I commend him for it. That is different from reaching every child here and now. Our job is to reach every child here and now. We in the City of New York have the capacity to do it, and we should be given that right. So, I am convinced that the fact that we start with so much common ground with both the governor and legislature is very propitious – convinced this is a great beginning. But we don’t want a phase-in, we don’t want a someday, we don’t want the 15 years where, you know, there was some support in Albany but never that critical mass. This is a here and now thing. The moment has come, and we’re going to see it through to completion.

Vincent Alvarez, President of the New York City Central Labor Council: Last question, guys.

Mayor: Yes?

Question: I have a question for the labor leaders that are gathered up here. Will you be using this issue, specifically the tax on the wealthiest, as a test for your support for state legislators and the governor and other leaders who are up for reelection this year?

Alvarez: Right now we’re committed to doing everything that we can collectively to make this plan a reality. We’re very passionate, we feel very strongly about the need for this. We know this is a smart investment in our city’s most precious resource, our children, and we’re going to do everything that we can to make it become a reality.

Question: Will you be withholding support from legislators who don’t back the plan?

Alvarez: It means that as of right now we have our work to do, as many people have said, and it’s a heavy lift and we’re going to do what we can to make this become a reality here for New York City.

Mayor: Thank you, everyone.

 

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