Former Mayor Bill de Blasio has dramatically expanded free kindergarten in New York City, an incredibly popular initiative that has made it free for every 4-year-old.
Now Mayor Eric Adams wants to leave his own mark on the early childhood education system, releasing a blueprint on Tuesday to make it easier for families to use and more streamlined for providers.
The 38-page plan calls for helping families gain easier access to care and expanding services to reach 41,000 more children in high-need neighborhoods over the next two years. It also focuses on strengthening the workforce that serves the city’s youngest children.
“All the research shows that quality child care is essential,” Adams said Tuesday. “We are going to address our childcare needs directly.”
Asked by a reporter on universal child care, Adams suggested that this is his ultimate goal. “We’re going to get there – we’re going to keep moving forward,” he said.
The needs are great. According to data from the American Community Survey, there are 315,000 children under 5 in New York City whose families reach the threshold for subsidized care, but only about 127,000 are enrolled in programs that are contracted by the city or receive a proof of purchase, according to the city’s blueprint.
Previously, the city announced a $ 100 million partnership with the non-profit organization Robin Hood, which is dedicated to improving child care. Part of the aim of the initiative is to create a new office at City Hall to streamline what is currently an incoherent system involving various departments and agencies.
Here are some highlights and what to look for as the city moves forward with its ambitious proposal:
Erase the voucher backlog
One of the ways New York City wants to make care more accessible is by eradicating a backlog of families waiting to be approved to receive subsidies through vouchers. The blueprint says the city is “committed to clearing the current waiting list by September.” City officials said about 7,000 families are currently on the waiting list, though not all may still need or want care. That is lower than about 35,000 on the waiting list in March, officials said.
To eradicate the backlog, the city plans to first address applications from 17 community districts identified as having the highest needs, based on the percentage of children and families living in poverty, unemployment rates and the availability of care in those neighborhoods . Families in those neighborhoods will not be placed on waiting lists under the city’s proposal. The Bronx is home to the largest number of priority neighborhoods, from Mott Haven to Highbridge and Bronxdale.
In addition to eradicating the proof of purchase deficit, the city wants to help families access care by advocating for changes at the state level, including removing roadblocks that disqualify parents from assisting if they set less than minimum wage and changing working hours requirements that can be difficult.
The city also significantly reduces the co-payments for families based on their income, so that families who paid $ 55 a week, for example, now only have to pay $ 10.
Adams, who has raised significant funds from developers and lobbyists during his campaign, has been pushing for tax incentives to help spur the creation of more childcare facilities.
The city budget has allocated tens of millions of dollars in cuts to help fund the construction and remodeling of spaces to open more child care centers and incentives for businesses that provide child care to their employees.
Some advocates were skeptical that it would make a big difference and would rather see the city focus its attention on existing centers – or to help reopen centers that no longer did business during the pandemic.
Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, said the city would need to work as a match between providers looking to expand and developers looking to make way for child care centers.
“There are many high quality suppliers out there. They are not regularly in the real estate business. “So there will be some support needed to connect those two,” she said.
Moran also questioned whether development would take place evenly across neighborhoods, such as those with many New York City Housing Authority buildings, or NYCHA, which currently houses some child care providers.
“Our suppliers are in NYCHA developments and they are located in neighborhoods that have different kinds of needs, and I do not know if they first see this type of development in their neighborhoods,” she said. “It’s going to be important to see where, geographically, it’s placed.”
Training and support for childminders
Low remuneration and problems in retaining staff are persistent problems in the child care sector. To help address these issues, the city, along with CUNY’s Professional Development Institute, wants to create a larger pipeline of educators. The city also wants to help those already in the field obtain their credentials – including full scholarships, according to city officials.
As of 2019, estimates show that about half of childminders who work in areas that receive public funding but are privately managed are not licensed – which traps them to earn lower wages. They also tend to work long hours and during the summer. Because of all this, it is often a struggle to complete a degree or earn a license. The city did not address how the new partnership would address those barriers.
As for the payment, the blueprint says the city will “work with experts to do a comprehensive assessment of the entire sector – including compensation.”
Speeding up background checks
One persistent roadblock for childcare center staff is a backlog of background checks. Adams’ plan promises to add 40 additional staff members to the city’s health department “to deliver results sooner.” Sluggish background checks have previously hampered other services, including after-school programs and special education preschool centers.
Adams promised that the faster checks would not make a dent. “We will continue to conduct thorough and rigorous background checks with our suppliers,” he said. “We are not going to take away the quality of the product.”
Including undocumented children
Undocumented children are not usually eligible for state and federal childcare assistance, but the city has set aside $ 10 million for childcare vouchers for families to start closing the gap. Attempts at state level to extend care to undocumented children in the last legislative session failed.
“We will provide proof of purchase for 600 undocumented children, because a child’s future should not be based on documentation,” Adams said.
The funding will also help the city set up a system so that those families can find childcare without “jeopardizing the confidentiality of their immigration status,” according to the city’s blueprint.
Changes in how suppliers are paid – and hopefully paid faster
Advocates said one of the most urgent needs right now is to make sure that current childminders who contract with the city are paid punctually. Currently, the education department is one of the slowest city agencies when it comes to registering contracts so they can be paid, according to a recent report. About 60% of contracts for this financial year, which ends in July, are still outstanding. Waiting so long to get paid can be devastating for many providers.
“While we are expanding and improving the early childhood care system, we really need to focus on stabilizing providers,” said Gregory Brender, director of public policy at the Day Care Council, which represents providers.
There are some encouraging action items in the blueprint, advocates said. This includes making it easier for providers to access higher repayment rates and giving them more flexibility in payments when children are absent – a problem that has cost many providers funding during the pandemic.
Christina Veiga and Alex Zimmerman are reporters covering schools in New York. Contact Christina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Alex at email@example.com.