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NYC Gets an ‘Incomplete’ Grade In Early Childhood Education

This piece by CCC’s Associate Executive Director for Policy and Government Relations Stephanie Gendell was published in Urban Matters on February 3, 2016.

Over the past two years, New York City has made good on an historic commitment to early childhood education by instituting free full-day pre-kindergarten for more than 65,000 4-year-olds. It’s an achievement Mayor Bill de Blasio and his team have every reason to take pride in.

In the broader realm of early childhood education, however, New York City’s work is still far from complete. The harsh reality is that currently, only 14% of income-eligible infants and toddlers up to age 3 in the five boroughs can receive subsidized early childhood education. Tens of thousands of children are still out in the cold when it comes to high-quality early childhood education programs.

The release last month of the City’s preliminary budget for Fiscal Year 2017 marks the start of a process that will culminate in the adoption of a final budget in June. Over the next five months, advocates for the city’s poorest children and their parents – families who undoubtedly benefit most from high-quality early childhood education programs – will be watching closely what City officials do to close this gap. We’ll be reminding them that early childhood education programs help to bring economic security to families by enabling parents to hold jobs while knowing that their children are safe, nurtured, and learning.  We’ll also present the evidence that early childhood education helps bridge gaps for low-income children, academically, socially, and developmentally.

The crux of the city’s early childhood education problem is: Lack of capacity. A recent study conducted by the non-profit Citizens’ Committee for Children and the Campaign for Children found that only about 22,700 of the approximately 157,000 children 3 years old or younger in income-eligible families can now be served by the City’s subsidized child care system. Families eligible for such subsidies are either receiving public assistance, transitioning from public assistance, or have annual incomes less than 200% of the Federal poverty level – for example, an income of less than $40,180 for a family of three.

This gap in program capacity is especially dire in Queens and Staten Island, where, respectively, only 9% and 6% of income-eligible infants and toddlers can be served through the city’s subsidized early childhood education programs.

Also troubling is the fact that, in recent years, capacity has actually shrunk throughout the city. In City Fiscal Year 2010, nearly 121,000 children received subsidized child care; in March 2015, however, only just over 98,000 children were enrolled in such programs, or received vouchers for them – a decrease of more than 18% in roughly five years’ time.  These are the consequences of budget cuts and the underfunding of the City’s subsidized child care “EarlyLearn” initiative.

In 2008, then-City Councilman Bill de Blasio, speaking as the chair of the Council’s Committee on General Welfare, described child care centers as “absolute precious resources,” and went on to argue that, ”We can’t eliminate slots, we have to find a way to preserve them and in fact build our capacity going forward.” What was true then remains true today. Now is the time to build on the City’s successful pre-kindergarten initiative by ensuring that all infants, toddlers, and preschoolers can receive high-quality, affordable early childhood education.

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