Big Dreams for New York City’s Youngest Children: The future of early care and education

In October 2012, New York City launched EarlyLearnNYC, a plan that would upend its system for providing subsidized child care to working class and low-income families. The goal was to take the city’s sprawling assortment of child care programs—ranging from subsidized babysitting services to nationally accredited preschools—and blend them into a unified, holistic spectrum of early education services for children from 6 weeks through 4 years old.

Under the vision of EarlyLearn, teachers would be well trained, with extensive opportunities for professional development. Families would be engaged as active partners in their children’s growth. Programs would be grounded in research about what works in early education, providing optimal support during the finite time when a child’s brain develops most rapidly.

Nearly two years after EarlyLearn’s launch, however, the program’s future is tenuous. While some early education providers—especially those at larger organizations with multiple sources of revenue—have used EarlyLearn as a springboard to develop truly creative programming, many others report that their funding is simply too low to make the vision of EarlyLearn real. Teachers, many of whom lost benefits and take-home pay in the transition to EarlyLearn, struggle to keep up with increased expectations in the classroom. Many of the city’s smallest programs—those which operate in church basements and neighborhood storefronts—struggle just to keep their doors open. This report examines the impact of EarlyLearn on early education providers, families and children: Has the strength of its vision compensated for the shortage in funding? If not, is the child care system merely experiencing growth pains that will lead to better outcomes for children? Or has EarlyLearn, in fact, hurt the quality of child care?

Key findings include:

  • Enrollment has been a major problem system-wide. City-contracted child care programs have been under-enrolled for more than a decade, but the numbers plummeted during the turnover caused by the launch of EarlyLearn, and have only recently climbed back to up to 87 percent of the system’s capacity. Because providers’ funding depends on enrollment, even a few missing children can destabilize a program’s budget. (See “Empty Seats,” page 28.)
  • Although expectations of teachers have increased, their salaries have not. With the city’s pre-kindergarten expansion gearing up, directors say they are bracing for a mass exodus of their most talented EarlyLearn teachers. (See “Universal Pre-K and the Future of EarlyLearn,” page 48.)
  • 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. The result is a recurring $90 million hole in ACS’s budget. (See “The Context: High Aspirations, Limited Funding,” page 14.)
  • Each year, the city also gives out thousands of non-mandated vouchers to help working class families pay for child care and afterschool programs. Of all the non-mandated vouchers used at formal daycare centers and schools in January 2014, nearly 80 percent were paid to Jewish religious organizations. (See “An Unequal Distribution of Child Care Vouchers,” page 46.)
  • There are far fewer small, neighborhood-based organizations participating in city-contracted early care and education today, compared to two years ago. The number of programs with just one city-funded site has dropped by more than 60 percent. (See “Can Small Programs Survive?” page 37.)
  • The total number of child care slots for infants and toddlers has not significantly expanded, as the original EarlyLearn plan intended. 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. (See “Infants and Toddlers,” page 43.)

The report also looks to EarlyLearn’s future, offering a series of recommendations and solutions to help the city as it works to achieve its vision of reform. These include:

  • The city should ensure that teachers in early childhood education programs receive salaries and benefits that are comparable to the package for Department of Education teachers.
  • City Hall, ACS and the Human Resources Administration should direct more public funding into the programs by working together to steer substantially more recipients of mandated child care vouchers to EarlyLearn programs.
  • ACS should support enrollment in EarlyLearn programs by updating its centralized referral system, making it possible to inform families—in real time—about open child care slots in their neighborhoods.
  • The city should automatically adjust the ACS budget when there is a change in the utilization or cost of mandated child care vouchers.
  • The city should create a more affordable fee structure for families participating in EarlyLearn programs.

This report was made possible thanks to the generous support of the Child Care and Early Education Fund.