In October 2012, New York City put a plan into action that would upend its system for providing subsidized child care to working class and low-income families. The Bloomberg administration set out to take the city’s large and unwieldy assortment of early care and education programs—ranging from subsidized babysitting services to nationally accredited preschools—and blend them into a unified, holistic system serving children aged 6 weeks to 4 years old. Officials intended for this new system to spur improvements in quality, giving children the kind of rich learning experiences that would set them on track for educational success for years to come.
These reforms followed on seven decades of subsidized child care in New York City, reshaping a system that had grown into a cumbersome and many-headed creature. For years, programs had been financed by a snarl of federal, state and city funding sources, each with a different mission and each subject to a separate set of regulations. “A child might lose eligibility for child care, but still be eligible for pre-k. Does the program keep the child and swallow the loss of funding?” asks Betty Holcomb, policy director at the Center for Children’s Initiatives, an early childhood advocacy organization. “The competing and sometimes conflicting regulations made it very hard to deliver the services smoothly, and to make sure programs best meet family needs.”
With its new $486 million initiative, EarlyLearnNYC, the city merged the largest funding streams and channeled them into classrooms and family child care homes to offer the best elements of each of the previously existing models. Under the new vision, babies and young children would get far more than a safe space while their parents worked: The new approach would take advantage of that finite time when a child’s brain is developing most rapidly, laying the foundation for positive and lifelong cognitive, social, emotional and physical gains.
The EarlyLearn plan reflected fast-growing knowledge of the limitations of traditional child care. Nationwide, studies have shown that most child care arrangements fail to support young children’s development in a meaningful way, with most child care centers being rated poor to mediocre— particularly those serving low-income and minority children. In New York City, government assessments of child care centers had long focused less on children’s experiences and learning than on whether, say, the refrigerator was maintained at the correct temperature. In some family child care programs in people’s homes, toddlers whiled away large chunks of their first years watching videos.
Under EarlyLearn, child care practices would be grounded in research about what works in early education. It would require a talented workforce of teachers; extensive professional development; low child-teacher ratios so that children would receive individualized, developmentally appropriate attention; and improvements in program quality rooted in thoughtful assessments of each child’s growth. As in Head Start, EarlyLearn providers would engage families as active partners in their children’s development.
The city’s institutional child care providers and antipoverty advocates applauded this new vision. However, when ACS announced its contract awards in May 2012, it became clear that the new approach would cause a massive upheaval in the system. Many longstanding child care programs lost their contracts, while others received funding to serve neighborhoods where they had little or no history. Programs became more concentrated under large organizations. Dozens of small programs were eliminated.
As these organizations prepared to implement EarlyLearn in the fall of 2012, a fundamental problem became clear: The funding allotted to the initiative was not adequate for the grand scope of its vision. The remaining small child care programs suffered the most. The new system expected them to adopt more rigorous standards—many of which had long existed in the Head Start model—while giving them less money per child than Head Start programs, and paying most teachers the significantly lower salaries of child care workers. Even many large programs soon struggled with the funding. Indeed, the mismatch between funding and expectations has turned out to be the initiative’s single biggest stumbling block.
“The idea and the prospect of what they planned to have happen are great,” says Jinny Zhong, a program director at Hamilton-Madison House, Inc. “It’s great for the family and it’s great for the kid. The downside of it is making sure the quality is there without the technical support.”
“The model is powerful. The intent is good. EarlyLearn has been completely underfunded,” says Sherry Cleary, executive director of the New York City Professional Development Institute for early educators at the City University of New York.
“They came up with a good model but they forgot to fund it,” agrees Michael Zisser, the executive director of University Settlement, a century-old nonprofit with early childhood programs in Manhattan and Brooklyn. “You can’t pay for the things you signed up to do with the money you were given.”
More than a year and a half after the city rolled out EarlyLearn, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School conducted several dozen interviews with program directors, early childhood experts, policy makers, advocates, parents, front line workers, union leaders and other stakeholders to assess EarlyLearn’s impact: Had the strength of its vision compensated for the shortage in funding? If not, was the child care system merely experiencing growth pains that would eventually lead to better outcomes for children? Or has EarlyLearn, in fact, hurt the quality of child care?
Our findings are mixed. Children, families, and the programs themselves have experienced gains in some areas and setbacks in others. Our key findings include:
- Enrollment has proven to be a major problem system-wide. This is nothing new: The city’s child care system has remained stubbornly under-enrolled for nearly a decade, with utilization rates languishing between 80 and 85 percent since 2007 and dropping sharply at the start of EarlyLearn. Enrollment has recently rebounded to close to 90 percent. Under EarlyLearn, however, providers’ funding is tied to enrollment—the city no longer pays for empty seats as it once did. Therefore even a few missing children can destabilize a program’s budget, making it harder to achieve the quality improvements at the heart of the EarlyLearn reform.
- The total number of children enrolled in citysubsidized child care declined by 17,000 between January 2012 and January 2014. In January 2012, there were 118,374 children enrolled in contracted programs or paying for care with vouchers. In January 2014, there were 30,207 children in citycontracted EarlyLearn programs; 66,992 receiving vouchers; and about 4,100 in City Councilfunded programs that are managed separately from EarlyLearn, for a total of about 101,300 children.
- Large programs, which have been able to draw from their own resources to fulfill the new requirements, have generally fared best under EarlyLearn. Some have used the initiative as a springboard to forge truly creative programming and collaborations and to dramatically strengthen the quality of their programs. Lutheran Social Services has partnered with an education school to train its teaching staff in some of the latest practices in early childhood education; Brooklyn Kindergarten Society has carved out time for its teachers to use child assessments to deepen their work; EarlyLearn has motivated Episcopal Social Services to expand its staff to provide families with more onsite services, including a mental health consultant.
- Many smaller programs now operate at a deficit, and their directors say the programs have been starved of resources and their workforces neglected. Some fear having to close their doors, and have come to see the quality improvements heralded by EarlyLearn as burdensome, unfunded mandates.
- Although expectations of teachers have increased, their salaries have not. With the city’s UPK expansion gearing up, directors at large and small programs alike say they are bracing for what may be a mass exodus of their most talented EarlyLearn teachers to the better-paying Department of Education jobs.
- The city’s subsidized child care system is insufficiently funded from the top down—a reality that puts intense strain on the providers who run programs under EarlyLearn contracts with ACS. The cost of the child care system has ballooned over the past decade, almost entirely due to an increase in the use of child care vouchers, which the city is mandated by federal law to provide to families receiving or transitioning off of cash assistance benefits. Between 1999 and 2013, the number of children using mandated vouchers rose by more than two-thirds, to nearly 57,000. The result is a recurring $90 million hole in ACS’s budget—a structural deficit that squeezes the city’s entire subsidized child care system as well as other parts of the children’s services agency, according to city officials. Because it cannot overspend, ACS must shift the burden of voucher expenses internally, taking dollars away from other programs and services.
- Each year, the city also pays for thousands of non-mandated vouchers to help working class families pay for child care and afterschool programs. In theory, these vouchers should be available to working families across the city. However, as of the beginning of 2014, nearly 50 percent of the vouchers for these families were used at child care and afterschool programs in the Williamsburg and Borough Park neighborhoods of Brooklyn—home to politically influential Orthodox Jewish communities. Even outside of those neighborhoods, yeshivas and other Jewish religious organizations were by far the biggest recipients of voucher funds: Of all the vouchers used at formal daycare centers and schools in January 2014, nearly 80 percent were paid to Jewish religious organizations, according to our analysis of city data. Orthodox communities have a pressing need for subsidized child care. Borough Park has the highest density of income-eligible children of any neighborhood in the city, and the Orthodox community in Williamsburg is not far behind, according to Census data. What’s more, subsidized secular programs may not be equipped to meet the needs of Orthodox families. However, other high-need communities such as East New York, Jamaica and the University Heights and Highbridge neighborhoods in the Bronx receive comparatively few of these child care vouchers.
- There are far fewer small, neighborhood-based organizations participating in city-contracted early care and education today, compared to two years ago. In 2012, there were 131 organizations running a single, city-contracted child care site, and 20 running a single Head Start. In 2014, there are just 60 single-site providers in the EarlyLearn program. While larger programs may be better able to weather the financial challenges of EarlyLearn. Smaller programs are often embedded deeply into the fabric of communities, with the capacity to build leadership and trust. In some cases they have met communities’ particular needs for generations.
- In the EarlyLearn vision, data and documentation are gathered to raise program quality. Information from child assessments, family intake forms, and programs’ self-assessments are to be used to tailor instruction to students’ and classes’ particular needs; provide referrals for neighborhood services targeted to family needs; and offer technical assistance from ACS as well as inhouse professional development catered to programs’ needs. Gathering this data is time-consuming, and some programs struggle to keep up with the paperwork it entails. Programs that are rich on resources are most likely to use the data to inform and improve program quality. Some find the detailed information generated from child assessments and program self-assessments to be particularly insightful about teachers’, classes’, and students’ unique strengths and challenges.
- The total number of child care slots for infants and toddlers has not significantly expanded, as the original EarlyLearn plan intended. Despite a high need for early care services for children under 3, the number of infants and toddlers in contracted, home-based care—where most young children are served—has barely budged, rising from 4,358 in July 2012 to 4,551 in January 2014.
Most advocates, directors, and policymakers continue to agree on one large positive aspect of EarlyLearn: its vision 5 of quality has held strong. By redesigning expectations of child care in the interest of benefiting kids, EarlyLearn has given the city a framework on which to build. If given the resources it needs to work as intended, some say, it could truly soar.
“After fifty or sixty years [of providing child care], we have finally put quality into the framework of the discourse,” says Myung Lee, who ran the division of Early Care and Education at the Administration for Children’s Services until early this year. “We’re actually getting questions about quality from child care providers. Whatever happens with EarlyLearn, I hope that doesn’t get away.”
“EarlyLearn says, ‘It’s a new day. We must focus on and meet the needs of children,’” agrees CUNY’s Sherry Cleary.
There is a great deal of work to be done quickly in order to strengthen the system for early care and education. The city must rationalize the relationship between the administration’s vast new expansion of UPK and its inevitable impact on current child care and early education organizations and their workforce. It must also determine what trade-offs may be necessary to ensure enrollment and adequate funding. In the next section, we outline a series of recommendations that could help resolve some of these challenges.