A city program that pays for childcare and Head Start services for low-income children is about to be redesigned in a way that may result in higher quality services , but for far fewer children. In 2011, total enrollment in city-subsidized childcare programs was about 117,000. Through the Administration for Children's Services (ACS), the city supports childcare programs for the city's lowest-income children at nonprofit centers and Head Start programs, as well as in private homes. Last year, the agency announced a plan to revamp requirements for its service providers, in order to make early education and developmental screening available to all kids in city-funded child care.
While children's advocates praise the city's efforts to ensure high quality care, many worry that the changes will lead to a substantial reduction in capacity , especially because the new programs will be more expensive for providers to run. Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed Executive Budget released last week, the city would fund care for 8,200 fewer children in the coming fiscal year, according to ACS.
Nancy Kolben, executive director for the Center for Children's Initiatives, calls the plan "a step forward in the city's vision for early child care." However, she says, "given the shortfall in funding, it represents a step backwards in terms of the ability to serve the same number of children and allow programs to meet the higher quality standards."
The Bloomberg administration has reduced the number of children it supports in subsidized child care over the years: In 2007, enrollment in city-subsidized child care was about 127,000, according to mayor's office documents. Today, that number is about 10,000 less.
Last year, the mayor initially proposed cutting an additional 7,000 slots at child care programs that contract with the city, but he and the City Council ultimately restored most of these in the final budget they enacted last June. Even if the Council again restores funding at last year's level, it will pay for several thousand fewer slots under the new program requirements, say advocates.
The new ACS initiative , known as EarlyLearn NYC , calls on programs to institute higher teacher-child ratios, bring social workers into the classrooms, combine subsidized-care children with kids whose families pay privately, and provide more support for families. ACS anticipates it will fund approximately 350 contracts, totaling approximately $515 million annually.
The city is targeting the largest share of funding to zip code areas with the greatest number of children in poverty. While the intent is to concentrate services where they are most needed, advocates say there will be consequences, including less funds for child care programs that operate in or near housing projects in otherwise higher-income neighborhoods, such as the Upper West Side. Amy Cohen, director of government contracts at the Jewish Child Care Association, predicts many low-income children outside of the designated areas will be left without services.
"There are a lot of kids living in pockets of poverty in New York who are going to be eligible but are going to lose their care," says Cohen.
The city estimates there are nearly 290,000 New York City children eligible for subsidized child care. The funding for center-based child care should cover about 34,700 of those kids, with nearly 96 percent of that funding reserved for centers in targeted high-poverty neighborhoods. The plan from ACS is less specific about the distribution of slots for home-based child care programs, but says contracts will be awarded with a similar emphasis toward targeted areas.
While government funding currently covers the entire cost-per-child enrolled in the programs, next year's contracts will require providers to cover a small percentage of the total cost by using tuition from children whose families pay privately, or use charitable donations and volunteer hours.
"It's doing more with less, but in excess," says Cohen.
Providers will also become responsible for health insurance for their employees, who are currently covered through the city's central insurance plan. Most employees at these agencies are protected by union contracts which mandate that employers provide coverage.
While child care centers run by the city's largest nonprofits may be able to fill in funding gaps with grant funds, Liz Accles, a senior policy analyst at the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, worries that the new system will place smaller community-based organizations at a distinct disadvantage.
Accles says that rushing into a citywide rollout of the new program without addressing these concerns may be premature. "Now is certainly not the time to be doing it in full-force" she warns. "We should be able to test a model and test costs and troubleshoot on a manageable scale. Many elements are good, but without adequate funding it's just not going to be possible to reach the vision that the city is imagining. "
ACS acknowledges that the new program structure may require changes, "such as the number of classrooms per site and children per classroom," writes spokesperson Tia Waddy in an email. But she says that the proposed rates will adequately fund contractors to operate high quality programs. "New York City's commitment to providing quality child care is based on the strongly held belief that success in school and in life is positively linked with the experience of quality child care. ACS, like many other city agencies, is operating under severe financial constraints, but we have never wavered in our belief that providing quality child care is one of our top priorities."
Budget negotiations will go on through April. Advocates are calling for the mayor and City Council to fully restore funding for the programs.