Opinion: We must act now to improve access to New York City's early education system

The current enrollment set-up doesn’t do enough to inform parents about free child care and get kids in the city’s 3-K and pre-K programs.

Kevin C. Riley (left) and Shekar Krishnan (right) with their children

Kevin C. Riley (left) and Shekar Krishnan (right) with their children Submitted

Early childhood education programs are vital to our city’s working families and essential to the success of New York City’s economy. As working fathers of 3- and 4-year-olds, our city’s 3-K and pre-K programs have made it possible for us and our partners to successfully balance our careers and caretaking responsibilities. We can advance our professional lives while having the peace of mind knowing our children are safe while getting the education they deserve.

Unfortunately, too many families across the city do not have access to these opportunities due to a lack of commitment and ineffective management by the Department of Education. As first reported in the Daily News, 1 in 3 parents reported a need for full-day care during the week in a recent survey of 1,100 parents by Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, and more than a third of parents did not know about the city’s subsidized child care programs.

It is imperative that we ensure New York City’s programs serving children meet the needs of working New Yorkers. A failure to make a major course correction now would only threaten to worsen this shortfall, and set our city back in continuing to build an early childhood education system that works for families.

Together with our colleagues in the Council’s Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, we are urging Mayor Eric Adams and DOE Chancellor David Banks to build a more sustainable and universal early care and education system. The overly centralized and complicated system of enrollment has not facilitated success, preventing parents from enrolling their children in community-based programs on site. The current inflexibility of early childhood education contracts has also been an impediment for working parents to access the full-day, year-round programs that match the end of the workday and make infant toddler care, 3-K and pre-K truly accessible.

It is no surprise that a system that fails to accommodate families is underutilized. This cannot be a reason to reduce our commitment to the programs, but rather should be an impetus to fix these systemic issues. 

Providers have echoed these concerns at recent council hearings and sounded the alarm about the challenges they face in filling seats, which is complicated by their lack of ability to enroll families directly. These challenges have been compounded by DOE’s failure to fulfill contract payments and clear outstanding payments to service providers for the last and current fiscal year. In addition, the department has yet to achieve pay parity for staff at programs operated by community-based organizations, who continue to be underpaid relative to their peers at public schools.

Mayor Adams’ proposed budget reductions, alongside the aforementioned administrative challenges, would obstruct our city’s progress and undermine the development of young children, the well-being of New York’s families and our city’s economic recovery.

New Yorkers deserve a budget that invests in them. The council’s fiscal year 2024 Preliminary Budget Response reflects these challenges and invests $15 million for a demonstration program to convert 1,000 school-day, school-year 3-K seats into full-day, full-year seats; and we are hopeful that our partners at the DOE will explore opportunities to lift the income eligibility requirement for full-day, year-round seats. We are also calling for an additional $46 million to enable community-based providers to increase compensation for their staff.

A key component of our recommendation calls for the development of a two-pronged enrollment system that also offers the option of enrolling directly on-site through community-based organizations, in addition to centrally through DOE. Success requires the city to invest in a robust, culturally and linguistically appropriate public education and engagement campaign to ensure families are aware of their options. It must leverage trusted community messengers and community-based providers as partners, similar to the city’s enrollment campaign for universal pre-K.

As fathers of young children utilizing the city’s early childhood education programs, and as council members representing families who rely on our city’s early childhood education programs, we know the demand exists for these programs. To demonstrate real commitment to an early childhood education system that is responsive to the needs of working families and our city’s workforce, Mayor Adams’ administration must address the DOE’s operational and systems issues that contribute to under-enrollment and delayed payments to community-based providers.

New York City has led on this issue before – and it must again. We cannot afford to get this wrong for our children, their future and our city now.

Shekar Krishnan is the New York City Council member representing District 25, which includes Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in Queens. Kevin C. Riley is the New York City Council member representing District 12, which includes Wakefield, Olinville, Edenwald, Eastchester, Williamsbridge, Baychester, and Co-op City in the Bronx.

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