City Council, Adams admin spar over early childhood education cuts

The program is more popular than ever – and it’s facing a $170 million budget reduction.

Schools Chancellor David Banks testified Wednesday.

Schools Chancellor David Banks testified Wednesday. Emil Cohen/NYC Council Media Unit

New York City Schools Chancellor David Banks is fresh off a tense congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., but that doesn’t mean his hometown legislative branch is letting him off the hook.

Faced with $170 million in cuts to early childhood education programs next fiscal year, New York City Council members sparred with Adams administration officials at an executive budget hearing Wednesday, urging the city to restore what they described as critical funding. Education Department officials pointed to vacant seats and new data showing that enrollment in early childhood programs is higher than ever, insisting their goal is to ensure cuts don’t lead to the elimination of any presently filled seat. Still, City Council members remain skeptical about city data and the city's outreach to families about the early childhood programs. 

“I'm really disappointed that you're all not providing us with direct, simple, straightforward answers to the questions that we're asking of what the impacts would be of your administration's proposed cuts,” Council Member Lincoln Restler said in response to education officials being unable to answer how many pre-K and 3-K seats will be impacted by the cuts.

The Education Department’s budget is set to shrink $808 million next fiscal year, about 2.4%, thanks in large part to the impending expiration of federal pandemic stimulus dollars. Last month, New York City Mayor Eric Adams pledged $514 million in city and state dollars to support a host of vital education programs dependent on the temporary funds, including $92 million for the expansion of 3-K. But that money is only guaranteed for next fiscal year, and Adams didn’t reverse the broader $170 million cut in city funding to early childhood education. 

The full restoration of that $170 million cut is one of members’ top budgetary priorities. 

Ever since Adams backed down on his predecessor’s promise to expand the city’s free universal preschool program for 3-year-olds, citing budgetary needs and the thousands of seats that currently sit empty, there’s been heated debate over the decision. For months, the New York City Council has called for a host of funding restorations and deeper investments in early childhood education and other student support programs, many of which were dependent on the expiring stimulus funds. The mayor has insisted that every family who wants a 3-K seat will have access to one despite the cuts, but City Council members are skeptical. 

Education officials said Wednesday that roughly 83% of early childhood education seats are currently filled. At the same time, enrollment is the highest it’s ever been: 114,000 children.

The city’s early childhood education system has faced challenges throughout the Adams administration. The city failed to pay many preschool providers on time, leading some to close down. The uneven allocation of seats has also been a big problem. Some neighborhood programs have long waitlists and others – largely in low-income communities – have many vacant seats, which council members have attributed to poor marketing and outreach to families on the city’s part.

As council members reiterated their concerns about the system’s operational issues Wednesday, schools Chancellor David Banks and Deputy Chancellor of Early Childhood Education Kara Ahmed insisted that the Adams administration inherited “outstanding challenges” from the previous administration ranging from unsubmitted back invoices to “a misalignment of seats.”

Ahmed said the Education Department has so far shifted or converted over 7,000 seats into age groups that match the needs of families, designating hundreds as extended day infant and toddler seats and creating more extended day seats for 3-K and pre-K. Vacancies have dropped as a result, falling from 34,000 empty seats last June to 23,000. Infant and toddler enrollment has increased 38%, she said.

“When you get seats in the right place, children enroll. When children enroll, vendors can submit for that enrollment so they can be paid, and that supports them as a business,” Ahmed said. “It’s all connected and aligned.”

The City Council has attributed empty seats to a lack of outreach to families. While the Adams administration pledged an additional $5 million for marketing in the executive budget, it still falls short of the $10 million the City Council has called for. 

City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams told education officials that members want to be the city’s partners in this work. 

“We're confident that there is demand for these seats as we've said, and the council wants to work with the administration to ensure the city conducts productive outreach to providers in the communities that can most benefit,” she said.

Additionally, despite Adams’ promise that every child with special needs will have access to a pre-K seat by June 2023, over 700 students are currently waiting for a seat, according to Christina Foti, chief of special education for the Department of Education. The $25 million Adams pledged by Adams last month will likely only cover 300 to 400 of the students next school year. 

“There are a lot of priorities and a finite amount of money. Every hearing we talk about pre-K special education. If we want to fix pre-K special education, the collective is going to have to prioritize pre-K special education,” Foti said. “I can’t say it clearer than that. We are making the most of what we have.”

Council Member Rita Joseph, chair of the Education Committee, expressed frustrations that a study commissioned by the city to figure out how many 3-K seats should exist in each neighborhood has yet to be completed more than a year after it was commissioned. Pointing to the thousands of empty 3-K seats, the Adams administration had billed the study – overseen by consulting firm Accenture – as necessary to give the city more insight into how the seats should be allocated. 

On Wednesday, Joseph pointed out that education officials told council members during the preliminary budget hearing in March that they’d be receiving the report in April, but critical decisions about seat allocation and funding are still being made despite not having that information. 

“As educators, data drives instruction and data also drives our policy, so we need the data to make the decisions,” she said. “Here we are again, $170 million dollars cut with no data. That’s just blindly making decisions.” 

“We are hoping that there will be something maybe by the end of this month or at least by the end of this fiscal year,” Ahmed said, explaining that while analysis of the study’s findings is still underway, the education department is drawing from direct feedback from families and communities in the meantime.

“We can’t live on hope,” Joseph responded. 

“It is a challenge, but we are trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” Banks said. 

The City Council and Adams administration have until the end of June to hash out a budget deal.