Recent years have brought a series of rapid changes to New York City’s subsidized early education system. There was the massive EarlyLearn reform of 2012, pre-K expansion in 2014, and now the Department of Education's rollout of preschool for 3-year-olds as it prepares to take over responsibility for all City-contracted child care services. In this shifting landscape, trends in enrollment can provide a window into how parents and providers are experiencing the changes. Using point-in-time data obtained by CNYCA, we have identified five key enrollment trends in New York City’s subsidized child care system. Some of these trends reflect developments in parents’ or providers’ choices; others are shaped by recent systemic and policy developments, such as Pre-K-for-All.
MORE PARENTS ARE CHOOSING LICENSED CARE OVER INFORMAL ARRANGEMENTS WITH FRIENDS AND FAMILIES
Informal care provided by friends and families has historically been the most common arrangement for families with young children. But New York City families receiving child care subsidies are increasingly turning to licensed family child care programs over informal arrangements. Between January 2014 and January 2018, enrollment of 0 to 5-year-olds in subsidized informal care dropped by 45 percent—from 8,330 to 4,605 children. In the last year alone, the number of 0 to 4-year-olds receiving subsidized informal care dropped by 19 percent. Meanwhile, the number of 0 to 5-year-olds enrolled in any type of licensed care has increased by over 4 percent, or over 2,850 children.
Some staff members at the City-funded child care referral agencies say that a growing number of the city’s parents believe that licensed programs are better equipped to prepare young children, including toddlers, for formal schooling. The City's messaging around Pre-K for All, and the importance of early childhood learning, may be key to this trend.
Changes in Enrollment by Program Type and Name
This table shows five categories of subsidized programs and the changes in enrollment between January 2014, before the New York City’s expansion of its universal Pre-K program, and January 2018.
LICENSED GROUP FAMILY CHILD CARE IS THE FASTEST-GROWING CHILD CARE CAPACITY FOR INFANTS AND TODDLERS
Family child care—or child care offered in a provider’s own home—once referred to a woman working alone to care for a few children in her apartment, often her living room. Not anymore. Today, most children in family child care are in “group family child care,” where a licensed home-based provider works alongside an assistant so that the program can take in more children. Among families paying for child care with vouchers, more than 93 percent of children ages 0 to 5 in family child care are in these group-based programs. Among children enrolled in City-contracted family child care programs, 86 percent are in group-based programs.
Enrollment in group family child care is growing especially rapidly for children ages 0 to 2, years for which there are few child care options. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of children in this age range enrolled in group family child care programs rose by nearly 8 percent.
Growth of group programs reflects both a choice of family child care providers, who can create more sustainable business models when they serve more children, as well as parents’ choice. Group programs often resemble centers or classrooms more than homes, and frequently have an intentionally educational feel that appeals to parents seeking an early learning environment. Often low-paid assistants work with the children in these programs, while the licensed provider attends to the business. As the fastest-growing child care capacity for infants and toddlers, these programs warrant research into how best to support their particular needs.
PRE-K PROGRAMS IN SUBSIDIZED CHILD CARE CENTERS CONTINUE TO LOSE KIDS
Ever since New York City’s initiative to expand preschool for 4-year-olds, EarlyLearn child care centers that the City contracts with to provide child care and pre-K have steadily lost enrollment among 4-year-olds. Enrollment of Pre-K-for-All-eligible 4-year-olds in the EarlyLearn centers has fallen by 20 percent since before the City’s expansion of pre-K, from 12,269 in January, 2014 to 9,778 in January, 2018. It fell 3 percent during the past year.
EarlyLearn Enrollment of 3- and 4-Year-Olds Since UPK Expansion
In the four years since UPK expansion, the number of UPK-eligible children enrolled in EarlyLearn child care centers declined by 20 percent. Some centers turned to serving more 3-year-olds. It is not clear yet how 3K expansion will affect this temporary solution.
While Pre-K-for-All has dramatically expanded parents’ options for where they can enroll their 4-year-olds, the subsidized child care centers must continue to draw their enrollment from the smaller pool of income-eligible 4-year-olds. They have responded by both increasing their recruitment methods and enrolling more 3-year-olds.
Despite these efforts, however, EarlyLearn child care centers have experienced an overall loss of about 12 percent of 3 to 4-year-olds since the fall 2014 pre-K expansion. Coupled with the exodus of many certified teachers from the child care centers to higher-paying early education positions at public schools and DOE Pre-K centers, this loss of enrollment has had a destabilizing effect on New York City’s vast and diverse network of child care centers, which serves infants and toddlers as well as preschoolers.
FAMILY CHILD CARE PROGRAMS ENROLL MORE 3- to 4-YEAR-OLDS
As subsidized child care centers lost 3 to 4-year-olds over the last four years, enrollment of children this age has grown in the family child care settings. More research is needed to understand exactly why this is; it may reflect a growth in families with pre-K students choosing family child care for their afterschool care.
DEMAND FOR CENTER-BASED CARE FOR INFANTS AND TODDLERS IS HIGH, SUPPLY REMAINS LOW
Over the past two years, the number of infants and toddlers enrolled using vouchers in child care centers has been rising for center-based infant and toddler slots (up 12 percent between 2016 and 2018). Meanwhile, the number of infants and toddlers enrolled in the subsidized EarlyLearn child care centers has been falling (down 9 percent, or 277 children, between 2016 and 2018). Interviews with parents as well as staff at child care referral agencies suggest this decline is not due to parent choice—parent demand for infant and toddler slots in centers is high—but because of a dwindling number of center-based EarlyLearn slots for this age group. For instance, about a year ago, the EarlyLearn program ended its contract with Brightside Academy, which was then one of the largest center-based providers of EarlyLearn infant and toddler care, with the capacity to serve over 100 children younger than 2. After Brightside’s contract ended, its centers that provided slots through EarlyLearn swiftly and successfully switched gears to enrolling families who pay with child care vouchers, contributing to the boost in numbers of infants and toddlers enrolled in child care centers using vouchers. This demonstrates how deep is the demand and short the supply for center-based child care for babies and toddlers. It also shows that it is critical for the City to promote quality not only in the City-contracted EarlyLearn programs, but in all programs offering subsidized child care.
— Kendra Hurley & Angela Butel