Why New York’s neediest families aren’t using free pre-K and 3K

NEW YORK — Six years ago, New York City hosted leaders from a dozen cities across the US to share lessons learned from its free early childhood education program for over 70,000 4-year-olds.

The immensely popular universal prekindergarten program was the brainchild of former Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014. Three years later, he began expanding it to 3-year-olds. The pioneering education policy remains the single biggest achievement from de Blasio’s two terms in office. It was so successful that it became a national model for other major cities like Seattle and Washington.

And yet, in a wildly expensive city where monthly child care costs top $3,500, a staggering 30 percent of free pre-K and “3K” seats were unfilled as of November.

Mayor Eric Adams, who took office in January, is canceling de Blasio’s plan for universal 3K, citing mismanagement of the program that led to the empty seats and budget cuts. Enrollment declines caused by the Covid-19 pandemic combined with a lack of education and outreach led to a striking imbalance where the lowest-income neighborhoods had the greatest number of empty seats and the wealthiest ones had long wait lists.

The result means that children whose families are struggling the most will be deprived of a lifeline — a chance at the kind of free, quality education that’s been shown to improve performance in high school mathematics. It could also be a deterrent to other cities looking to replicate New York’s model after President Joe Biden repeatedly failed to get funding for early childhood education in spending bills.

“The city was leading the way so I think this is a huge setback,” said W. Steven Barnett, a Rutgers University professor who’s authored studies about the effects of preschool programs on achievement levels.

The blame game

Adams has defended his decision to curtail the 3K program by blaming his predecessor for its drawbacks.

Earlier this month, the major announced 800 new pre-K seats for special education students, arguing that de Blasio’s plan for universal early childhood education left out students with disabilities.

“I disagree with the universal definition that doesn’t include all of our children,” the mayor said at a Dec. 13 press conferences. “All of our children must be included. A true universal program prioritizes and serves every child, every day, in partnership with families and reflecting the needs of the community.”

In his first year in office, de Blasio fulfilled a campaign promise to institute universal pre-K despite critics’ insistence it was impossible. He then announced a plan in 2017 to expand it to all 3-year-olds by 2021 with a combination of city, state and federal funds.

The state and federal funds didn’t come through, and the pandemic hobbled the plan. Then, in March 2021, de Blasio caught a break — he announced that he would use federal Covid stimulus funds to create 60,000 3K seats. He is committed to serving all the city’s 3-year-olds by September 2023, although he didn’t have a plan to pay for the program once stimulus money ran out.

“The only things being ‘abandoned’ are aspects of the current system that are unsustainable and have failed to meet the needs of all children and families,” New York City Department of Education spokesperson Suzan Sumer said in a statement.

Adam’s dashes dreams of universal 3K

In a November modification to the city’s budget, Adams reallocated $568 million in stimulus funds from 3K to meet a 3 percent budget cut required for most agencies amid looming deficits.

He also decided to cancel a planned increase of the program from 55,000 to 61,000 seats in 2023. The DOE spokesperson faulted the program for “opening tens of thousands of seats where there isn’t a family need and failing to open seats where the need exists. ”

New York’s 3K program has just 38,281 students enrolled in a total of 54,713 seats while the pre-K program has 54,730 children in 77,066 seats, according to DOE data.

The places where the seats sit empty help explain a core part of the program’s problems.

the 10 neighborhoods with the most open seats includes high-poverty areas like Highbridge and Morrisania in the Bronx, while the 10 neighborhoods with the fewest open seats include the wealthy enclaves of the Upper East Side and Soho.

It may seem counterintuitive that lower-income communities are using a free public child care program much less than wealthier ones, but the pandemic played a big part in that lopsided outcome.

Covid-19 closing

The system shut down in the spring of 2020 when all city public schools went remote and most of it remained closed until fall 2022.

When pre-K and 3K finally reopened, residents of Bronx neighborhoods like Highbridge and Morrisania had some of the highest rates of Covid infections, deaths and job or income loss.

“I don’t think that [the Adams administration] appreciated the impact that the pandemic had on families’ awareness of early care in the education system and the level of help that they needed in re-engaging with the system and finding their way back to it,” said Josh Wallack, who oversaw the expansion of pre-K under de Blasio.

Adams officials said they have conducted outreach to families through virtual events, emails and phone calls in lower-income communities. They’ve also communicated with the parents and guardians of 3K students who have not yet applied for pre-K.

The city’s numbers also reflect nationwide enrollment declines partly attributable to the fact that children aged 6 months to 5 years just became eligible for the Covid vaccine in the summer of 2022, when many parents were still wary of sending their kids back into group settings.

Problems beyond the pandemic

The centers had their own issues with reopening. They struggled with a high turnover of child care workers and late payments from the city. The Adams administration has tried to rectify the latter problem by accelerating reimbursement to providers.

Many of the empty seats have been unfilled since 2014, according to a DOE spokesperson who cited a misalignment between some communities and family needs.

Wallack, the former de Blasio official who’s now a fellow at Open Society Foundations, said the previous administration tried to determine demand by working with providers to scrutinize enrollment numbers from the previous year and then make adjustments over the spring and summer.

Wallack said Adams’ education officials didn’t follow suit.

“I don’t think that this administration is focused on managing the balance between seats and demand from January on and I don’t think that they did significant outreach from January on,” Wallack said.

Finally, an application process controlled by the DOE — as opposed to being parents able to enroll their children directly with community providers — has led to access issues.

“Because registration is centralized it’s difficult for people to navigate, especially for families who have to work a couple of jobs to make ends meet,” said Marina Marcou-O’Malley, policy and operations director for the nonprofit Alliance for Quality Education.

“People cannot actually show up at the program in their neighborhood and say, ‘I need a spot.’ So these slots go unfilled,” Marcou-O’Malley said.

New York’s early childhood education program is made up of both private community providers who contract with the city as well as sites located in public schools.

Community providers like Mitrajita Persaud, educational director of a center in Jamaica, Queens, that serves 3K, pre-K and 2-year-olds, said in an interview she has open seats because she competes with local public schools to fill them. Oftentimes parents choose the public one for convenience if an older sibling attends K-12 in the same building, he said.

The future of 3K in NYC

Jennifer March, executive director of the education advocacy group Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, believes there are ways to fill the 40,000 empty seats. She’s suggested building flexibility into the city’s early childhood education contracts to better match demand. Her organization is also conducting a broad survey of parents to learn how to engage them.

“Moving forward, there’s a real interest in trying to understand what, from a parent’s perspective, are barriers to information, enrollment and actual access,” March said.

She added that providers should be more involved in the enrollment process.

Adams’ plan to curtail 3K expansion has sparked backlash among families, elected officials and advocates who have hailed the program as an overall success and a necessity for low-income families in need of free child care, even if many of those families aren’t filling the seats in areas like the Bronx.

The City Council has to approve the mayor’s reallocation of stimulus funds away from 3K, but the majority of the body is not expected to fight it.

Council Member Lincoln Restler, co-chair of the body’s progressive caucus, said he’s “hopeful” for a return to universal 3K.

“When parents and teachers and providers organize together across the diversity of our city, I’m confident that we will be successful in restoring this much-needed funding,” Restler said.

The mayor is ultimately responsible for fixing 3K regardless of who is to blame for its flaws, said City Council education Chair Rita Joseph.

“No matter how it goes down, it’s going to go on the Adams administration to make sure they deliver these seats because this has been a model,” Joseph said. “Whatever they’ve inherited … they now have to fix it.”

Julia Marsh contributed to this report.