The city isn’t sending as many 4-year-olds to pre-kindergarten as it could, according to an audit by Comptroller John Liu.

Liu’s latest Department of Education audit looks at the way the city uses state funding for “universal pre-kindergarten” programs. The funds can be used to pay for half-day pre-K classes at public schools or through city or community-based preschool programs.

Even though many public schools maintain waiting lists for pre-kindergarten classes, especially where space is tight, many 4-year-olds are not enrolled in pre-K classes that could help prepare them for school. Every year, the audit calculates, the city returns an average of about $30 million in unused pre-K funding to the state.

“DOE’s failure to fully allocate all UPK funds means that children who could have received pre-kindergarten classes are not being served,” concludes the audit, which radiates evidence of tension between Liu’s office and the DOE.

The department submitted its response to the audit “under protest” and calling the audit’s focus “deliberately and stubbornly myopic, thereby rendering it of little, if any, worth.” If Liu’s office had looked at efforts to expand pre-K enrollment, the DOE argues, it would have found that the problem lies not with the department but in constricting state regulations.

An enormous challenge, the DOE and Liu’s office agree, is that the state will only pay for two and a half hours of pre-K per day for each child.

The city has long said that it would have no trouble using all of the state’s pre-K funds if only they could be used for full-day programs, which many parents prefer. But some programs offer additional time and services on top of what the state pays for, and Liu’s office concluded that the city does not make an effort to direct the extra pre-K funding to them.

Lobbying the state for permission to use pre-K funding for full-day programs is one of 10 recommendations the audit offers the city. In its response, the DOE accepts nine of the suggestions, arguing that many are already in place and rejecting only the idea that pre-K providers should be required to keep waiting lists of children they cannot accomodate.

The audit finds that the DOE hasn’t fully assessed public demand for pre-K programs or recruited new providers to offer programs where demand exceeds the number of available seats. Plus, the audit finds, the city doesn’t know which pre-K providers do the best job.

Assessing and rewarding quality is part of the city’s EarlyLearn initiative, a reauthorization process for early childhood programs that has just gotten underway.

The full audit is below, followed by the city’s response.

Audit of UPK

Audit of UPK, Response