Universal No More: Parents Scramble as Adams Halts Expansion of 3K Childcare Programs

Issue 277

It’s not easy being a working-class parent with small kids in NYC, and the Adams administration is about to make it even harder.

Safiyah Riddle Feb 6, 2023

At only 15 months old, Lupe Hernandez’s eldest son Nico was diagnosed with autism by a city-funded, free early childcare program. Until he was old enough to enroll in kindergarten, he received free physical and occupational therapy to aid his development. Now, Hernandez is hoping to enroll Nico’s little brother, who turned three this month, into one of the city’s free programs. 

But an email sent by the Department of Education about a Jan. 20 enrollment deadline also issued a warning: “Please note that due to limited seat availability, not all 3-K applicants will be guaranteed an offer.”

Mayor Adams’ most recent 2024 budget proposal would cut 3-K funding $567 million by halting the expansion of the city’s universal 3-K early childhood education programs. 

Universal 3-K and pre-K was the crowning achievement of former Mayor Bill de Blasio and became a model for cities across the country. By the end of his tenure, de Blasio allotted nearly $470 million of federal COVID-19 stimulus money to expand the program to 60,000 seats by 2023 ­— ostensibly making it universally available to all three-year-olds across the city. But the New York State Comptroller’s Office projects a $376 million shortfall in 3-K funding by 2026 as one-time federal funding expires. 

A family is on the edge

Hernandez, 34, is concerned that this will mean her youngest son will not be able to receive the same childcare that his older brother did. 

“Our socioeconomic situation is not possible if we don’t have the assistance of universal 3-K,” said Hernandez. 

Hernandez is one of 375,000 parents citywide who left or reduced employment because of COVID-19 and lack of access to quality chilcare. After she contracted long-COVID in 2021, her family has relied on the income from Hernandez’s husband, who is a maintenance worker at a hotel in Tribeca. 

Hernandez’s husband is the third generation in his family to live in an affordable housing complex in Tribeca, an other­wise wealthy area that parents flock to for its high-quality public schools. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve been out-priced on everything. From after-school programs — just everything and anything you can imagine,” Hernandez said. “[Private] daycare is just next to impossible because nannies probably make more than my husband makes on a yearly salary”

The City Council has vowed to fight the proposed cuts, which would affect libraries and schools disproportionately. 

Mayor Adams’ budget would also slash funding to all city agencies except for the New York Police Department, the Fire Department, and the Department of Sanitation, in order to curb a projected $10 billion deficit by 2026. The $711 million required for 3-K expansion as originally planned is a fraction of the $11.2 billion allocated for the NYPD — and $100 million less than what the city will pay this year in police overtime payments alone. 

The City Council has vowed to fight the proposed cuts, which would disproportionately affect libraries and schools. 

Income & work requirements

At all grade levels, school enrollment has dropped precipitously citywide. According to DOE data, the number of children enrolled in a 3-K program dropped by 8% between 2019 and 2022, leaving 16,432 seats unfilled. Likewise, the number of pre-K students dropped 13%, leaving 22,336 seats unfilled. 

Despite the vacancies, some schools across the city have waitlists that are hundreds of students long. Over 1,500 students did not receive an offer for the 2022–2023 school year. 

In a tweet, DOE Press Secretary Nathan Styer stated that the current programs are disproportionately reaching parents in high-resource areas, underscoring the department’s shift away from universal programs toward programs catering to the city’s poorest families. 

“I think [the last administration’s] goal was big, bold numbers,” Schools Chancellor David Banks said to The New York Times in a September interview. “Our focus is not on a number. Our focus is on the quality.”

The Adams administration has promised to improve outreach to families making less than 300 percent of the city’s poverty level, who are eligible for childcare vouchers through the Administration for Children’s Services. The administration has also taken steps to ensure that undocumented New Yorkers are eligible as well. 

In the year since Mayor Adams took office, the number of families receiving these vouchers increased by 10,000 — but is still 14,000 vouchers lower than in 2019.

Gregory Brender, director of public policy for the Day Care Council of New York, is concerned that the shift away from universal care toward means-tested programs will only worsen disparities.

According to Brender, programs that have “income requirements and work requirements attached to it not only means that only those families who qualify can access the care, but it also presents a barrier because the process of determining that a family is eligible for care can take weeks or even months,” Brender explained. “And it requires a lot of paperwork. It requires a lot of effort on the part of low-income families.”

Why the empty seats?

Ayanna Djata, 32, describes getting four children through the city’s free childcare programs as a full-time job.

When her youngest two children were one and two years old, Djata won the housing lottery and moved from the Bronx to a new high rise in the Lower East Side. 

“I wasn’t familiar with the area, I didn’t know the challenges that I was going to have to experience in terms of finding the children places to be,” Djata said. “I had to call a lot of childcare providers ­— I was looking even all the way up to Harlem,” nearly an hour’s commute away. 

She had to leave her full-time work as a bank teller for Wells Fargo in the process. 

At all grade levels, school enrollment has dropped precipitously citywide.

Like Hernandez, Djata’s son Noah was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old at a home daycare service provided by the city. His diagnosis was only the beginning of Djata’s journey to get him the care that he needed. 

In addition to providing the paperwork that established her eligibility for home-care vouchers, she also had to coordinate between pediatricians, medical insurers and teachers. 

As a Black mom, Djata felt she had to be extra diligent in monitoring her children’s educational experiences. Even after successfully enrolling her three youngest kids at free 3-K programs, she often felt teachers mistook her Black son’s special needs for delinquent behavior in his majority-white classrooms. 

The barrage of changes in the past year has only made the process more difficult, Djata explains, as she tries to enroll her one-year-old daughter in home-based care. 

Between the 400 instructional coordinators and school social workers who were excessed without warning weeks before the first day of school in September — only to be reinstated months later — and the $400 million in delayed payments to daycare providers, the new administration has struggled to establish order. 

“Policies change all the time and you have to be aware of that. You know, this new person in office, he did a lot of revamping in the early childhood education space. So if you have children, you have to figure out what did he do and how does that affect you,” Djata said. “It’s really, really tough.”

Resources for outreach

For Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, an appointed member of the Manhattan Borough President’s Panel for Educational Policy, failing to expand funding as originally planned will make it harder to reach parents struggling to navigate these changes.

“Not having the funding will be huge in terms of the seats that may be there, but more importantly, how are we going to get the child the services that they require?” said Salas-Ramirez. “How are we going to have the manpower necessary in order to provide those services?”

Last year, Melissa Martinez Uribe, 32, applied for her son to enroll in pre-K programs that would offer childcare through the end of her workday. As a salesperson at a gift shop, she doesn’t return to the apartment she shares with her aunt and grandmother in Astoria, Queens, until 6 or 7 p.m.

Uribe applied to numerous extended day programs in the area, but her son only got into a program that goes until 2:30 pm — hours before she gets off of work. 

Though it wasn’t her first choice, Uribe  wants to keep her son in the program because she appreciates that classes are taught in Spanish, her native tongue, as well as English. But that doesn’t look feasible.

“I’m like, what kind of job can I get? I have to be there at 2:30 to pick him up. Right in the middle [of the day],” Uribe said. “That’s so hard as a single parent.”

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