In late April, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced two new plans that could determine the future of the country’s largest child care system for poor and low-income families. First, the mayor wants to expand his well-regarded “Pre-K for All” program for 4-year-olds to provide free preschool to 3-year-olds as well. The projected multi-year expansion is called “3-K for All.”
Also huge — EarlyLearnNYC, the city’s massive subsidized early education system, will move from its current home at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to the city’s Department of Education (DOE), adding children as young as six weeks old to the department’s portfolio.
Both moves will depend heavily on the private sector, which already provides more than half the seats for Pre-K for All. But some private child care providers say Pre-K for All caused unintended consequences, including teachers leaving for higher paying Department of Education jobs and major drops in enrollment. And 3-K for All could exacerbate those problems.
If 3-K for All succeeds — meaning that it is funded and brought to scale — child care centers will be an essential part of its capacity. To avoid the same problems that centers faced when enrolling 4-year-olds, directors say that DOE will need to do things differently.
“I’m thrilled the attention is now on the younger years,” says Laura Ensler, founder of the FirstStepNYC early childhood center and early education leadership institute in Brownsville, Brooklyn. But, Ensler adds, “in order to be successful, there must be a plan that does not further destabilize the current system.”
There are many facets of the city’s subsidized child care system that will be new to the DOE when it takes on younger children. For instance, it will have to train hundreds of women who look after infants and toddlers in their homes across the city as part of EarlyLearn. But in theory, at least, the DOE seems a natural home for a diverse range of programs that share the common goal of preparing young children for school.
Moving EarlyLearn from ACS to the DOE would have the added benefit of allowing ACS to have greater clarity of mission and focus on the already gargantuan task of keeping kids safe while helping stabilize families in crisis.
But, as the Center for New York City Affairs predicted before the UPK expansion occurred, there are drawbacks, too. Many preschool and EarlyLearn teachers have left private centers for city schools and pre-K centers, where pay is higher.
The UPK expansion has also hit enrollment at the privately run centers. Data provided by ACS show that since the city’s expansion of UPK programs in September 2014, enrollment in EarlyLearn programs of children eligible for UPK (4-year-olds or those about to turn 4) has decreased by nearly 20 percent — from 12,269 in January 2014 to 10,073 in January 2017. This has left some EarlyLearn pre-K programs severely under-enrolled or in constant flux, with the centers struggling to adjust their budgets.
That’s because when Pre-K for All was launched, families eligible for EarlyLearn services suddenly had far more choices for where to enroll their 4-year-olds, including child care centers, public schools or the DOE’s standalone pre-K centers. In this competition, the programs housed in schools and DOE-run pre-K centers have some key advantages over EarlyLearn programs in recruiting families. For one thing, there’s a perception that because their teachers are paid better and because they are school-based and don’t have to spend resources on rent, the programs are stronger.
Also significant for parents, the DOE’s eligibility requirement for pre-K programs is simple — it asks only that children be born during a specified year. EarlyLearn and Head Start programs, on the other hand, have stringent income eligibility rules, reducing the pool of families they can recruit from. Moreover, EarlyLearn programs require enrolling families to complete much more paperwork to register — a complicated and sometimes lengthy process.
Hudson Guild is a community agency that runs several early childhood programs in Manhattan, including Head Start, UPK and EarlyLearn classes. Before the expansion of UPK, Hudson Guild relied on about 90 percent of their 3-year-olds moving on to their classrooms for 4-year-olds; now that retention rate is only about 60 percent. LeAnn Scaduto, deputy executive director at Hudson Guild, points out that she and her colleagues now must spend far more time and energy recruiting and retaining kids for these classes, which plays havoc with classroom planning.
Even if their classrooms are filled, early education centers may encounter yet another obstacle to stability: part-time students. Most early education centers are built on a business model that assumes children will be enrolled 12 months a year for eight-10 hours per day, but DOE pre-K runs 10 months per year for a little over six hours per day. But DOE policy prevents center directors from picking and choosing only those children who need a full day or full-year care. This means for each UPK child who does not need summer or extended-afternoon care, they lose money.
“If my budget is predicated on having children all day, and they aren’t there all day, it will put me out of business,” says Maria Contreras-Collier, executive director of the Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation, which provides UPK in its EarlyLearn program.
Three years into Pre-K for All, many EarlyLearn centers are still struggling to adjust to these changes. Some have decided that even if it is against DOE policy, they will do everything possible to take only those kids from their waitlists who need a full day and full year of care. Others have moved into survival mode and moved resources away from the classrooms and into teacher and student recruitment.
Deciding it is simply too difficult to enroll as many 4-year-olds as before UPK, others have turned their attention to enrolling children ages 3 and younger.
But while there is a great demand for more infant and toddler care in centers, converting a preschool classroom to one suited for babies is difficult and expensive; it requires a different permit and, along with that, different space and staffing requirements, including a lower child-to-teacher ratio.
In the best-case scenario, directors say, with the DOE as EarlyLearn’s new home, the department will embrace these challenges as their own and become an advocate for subsidized child care, taking on the thorny issue of salary disparity among teachers and setting up equitable and sustainable systems for recruiting and retaining students.
In the worst-case scenario, the youngest children from the poorest families will inhabit the lowest rung of a child care hierarchy, one where their teachers are paid the least and where their centers struggle to stay open.
“Ultimately all these plans are well-intended and investing in young children leverages amazing benefits,” says Contreras-Collier. “You just have to do it right.”
This article is adapted from a policy brief by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School.