As 3-K expansion pauses, NYC hires consultant to study where to move seats

Two pairs of hands are shown working on an activity for young children. The smaller pair of hands holds a marker and a marker cap, while the larger pair of hands points to the paper.
New York City has hired a consultant to see where to move seats for preschool for 3-year-olds as it faces thousands of vacant seats. (Carl Glenn Payne II for Chalkbeat)

As Mayor Eric Adams has backpedaled a plan to expand free preschool for New York City’s 3-year-olds, officials have hired a consulting firm to figure out how many seats should exist in each of the city’s neighborhoods next year.

The city will pay consulting firm Accenture just over $760,000 to “map out needs and seats” because of thousands of vacancies in the program, Jacques Jiha, the city’s budget director, said during Monday’s City Council hearing on the mayor’s preliminary budget.

While Jiha said the city has about 19,000 empty seats this year, education department officials have pinned the number in recent months closer to 16,000. (Spokespeople for City Hall and the education department did not immediately clarify which number is correct.)

The study, which Jiha said has been underway for about a month, comes after Adams decided earlier this year not to expand the program for 3-year-olds as planned under former Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio wanted to model the program on his universal preschool for 4-year-olds, estimating the city would need about 60,000 seats. 

The city currently has about 55,000 seats, thousands of which sit empty. Adams administration officials argue that the system needs a close study to determine whether seats are currently in neighborhoods that need them. 

“Once that study is completed, OK, we will have more insight in terms of how to allocate those seats and in which area to allocate them,” Jiha said during the hearing. Under de Blasio, city officials estimated that providing free preschool for 3-year-olds would save families about $10,000 in child care costs. 

Officials did not immediately share the duration of the Accenture contract or when the study’s findings will be complete. Jiha said they’re pushing Accenture “hard” to issue its recommendations before the start of next school year — and in time for the city to incorporate changes in the upcoming budget, which must be adopted by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1. 

Many city lawmakers and early childhood advocates have criticized the mayor’s decision not to add more seats to the program — a plan that relied heavily on COVID stimulus funds, which are set to run out next year. Some have argued that the city is not doing more aggressive outreach in many neighborhoods with vacancies — many of which are in low-income communities — thus failing to reach families who could benefit the most from free preschool programs. Advocates have also blamed the lack of enrollment on a cumbersome application process, Politico reported.

“My district is one of the areas and we had a huge vacancy issue, and there was no real outreach done,” Councilwoman Althea Stevens, who represents part of the Bronx, said during Monday’s hearing. 

Revamping the city’s 3-K system is just one thorny early childhood education issue facing the Adams administration. The city had failed to pay preschool providers on time, leading some to shutter, while a separate plan to move hundreds of early childhood workers into new positions has been paused after it initially caused confusion and chaos across the division.  

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At the same time, the city announced an ambitious effort to provide preschool seats for every student with a disability, an issue that former Mayor Bill de Blasio was unable to solve. 

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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