A year ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned for re-election on a promise of instituting “3K-for-All” – a logical extension of the popular citywide launch of universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) for 4-year-olds during his first term.
At the time, neither he nor the voters may have envisioned parents dropping their 3-year-olds off for preschool at private homes and apartments. But especially in the low-income communities where 3K is rolling out first, that appears to be an increasingly likely scenario – one that the Center for New York City Affairs will explore in detail in a report we’ll publish in December.
The report will show that unlike the massive, high-speed launch of UPK, the City is introducing 3K more slowly, adding a few community school districts each year, focusing first on those with high concentrations of poverty. It is in districts where elementary schools are overcrowded and child care centers scarce that the City is most likely to turn to licensed group family daycares—most of which operate in private neighborhood homes—as additional sites for 3K classes.
Local advocates and providers say bringing these providers into the 3K fold will be well worth the effort. These programs give families the option of small, homey settings for their young children. Unlike most schools, which aren’t equipped to take care of children under 5 after the school day ends, these family daycares can stay open for a full workday. And if the City finds ways to maintain these small programs as mixed-age settings, toddlers in the home daycares could have the option of staying put for 3K, allowing for more consistent caregiving, and for siblings of different ages to stay together.
But there are also many ways this could go wrong. If the programs are not adequately supported and compensated, or if standards for them are set too low, these family daycares could provide substandard 3K services to the low-income children that the initiative is particularly keen to benefit. There could also be damage to the city’s delicate ecosystem of child care, diminishing the already severely limited supply of licensed infant and toddler care available to poor, working families.
To prevent these outcomes will require a balancing act. The City’s Department of Education will need to make careful decisions about which home programs to work with, what is reasonable to ask of their teachers, and how to help them succeed. They must grapple with philosophical issues, including how much to honor the approaches that home-based caregivers have developed over years—sometimes decades—of practice, and where the City can advance its own vision of early education.
And through it all, the City must keep careful watch on the larger system of child care that working New Yorkers depend on – especially on infant care, which is already a limited, precious resource in New York.
The potential loss of infant and toddler slots is very real with the expansion of 3K. Here’s why: the current per child rate that subsidized family child care providers receive is simply too low for them to create viable businesses solely serving children younger than 2. That’s in part because the State rightly requires that such very young children have heavier staffing than older children require. This means that some family child care providers who lose 3-year-olds to the new, free 3K programs are at-risk of going out of business.
On the other hand, opening a 3K program is by no means a guarantee of success either, and there is a real danger that without adequate support many family child care programs that do so may ultimately close, diminishing the City’s overall supply of child care in low-income neighborhoods. Los Angeles suffered just such a loss of infant care when it began using family child care for its targeted public Pre-K program.
Family child care providers now often earn what amounts to poverty-level wages. Not surprisingly, 3K’s promise of greater funding is inspiring many to re-imagine their programs so that they can compete in this more lucrative field. Achieving high-quality early education across all family child care settings will require paying subsidized providers more and investing in and incentivizing program improvements. Providers who accept vouchers should have the opportunity to receive higher rates as they meet quality benchmarks. Many states already provide tiered levels of payment for subsidized family child care providers that encourage them to pursue professional development and program improvement; New York State should start doing that too.
Mayor de Blasio has often said he wants New York City to be “the fairest big city in America,” and rightly considers his administration’s investments in early education a key part of realizing that vision. Family child care has long been the most common form of child care for New York’s very youngest and poorest children, and the City is wise to be making it an important part of its early education strategy. If the de Blasio administration can protect the precious child care slots these providers offer while infusing them with new funding and resources, it will be a huge win for the mayor’s vision, and the city.