Why Saving New York City’s Universal Preschool Matters for the Country

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Anna Nahabed/Shutterstock
May 25, 2023

Along with thousands of other New Yorkers whose babies were born in 2020, I refreshed my email constantly this spring, waiting to find out whether we secured a coveted seat in the city’s free preschool program for three-year-olds, or “3-K.” If granted a spot, it would save my family almost $2,000 a month. Even though thousands of families left New York during the pandemic, we returned to Brooklyn because of the promise of universal preschool for our kids. When Mayor Eric Adams decided to restrict the number of seats available for 3-K, we were left in a $24,000 limbo — a scary place to be when you’re a family of five trying to make it in one of the most expensive cities in the country.

New York City’s universal preschool program is “the preeminent early childhood program in the country,” according to Karen Alford, the Vice President for Elementary Education at the United Federation of Teachers. The program, rolled out in 2014 during former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, provides free preschool for all four-year-olds in the city and a more limited number of seats for all three-year-olds. In the most segregated school system in the country, access to high-quality early childhood education levels the playing field for students and is an economic game changer in a city where 93 percent of families cannot afford the cost of daycare.

This isn’t just a New York issue: The country is in a childcare crisis with no national solution. States and cities are facing the same questions NYC has grappled with: whether to provide care for all or for only those who need it the most, how to build the physical infrastructure to support childcare, and how to fund programs in a durable way to withstand different administrative priorities.

When Eric Adams became mayor in 2022, he began diverting resources away from the program, not expanding seats and cutting $567 million earmarked for 3-K’s expansion. The city also owes providers around $400 million. These rapid shifts have caught New Yorkers — from parents to daycare providers to members of city council — off guard. Hilla,* a native New Yorker and parent who spoke with me for this story, has two kids who attended 3-K and Pre-K for All programs in Queens. She is baffled by the current administration’s approach to early childhood care.

“If you know how popular these programs are, why would you come in and say, ‘You know what, I’m just gonna get rid of them?’” says Hilla. “That makes no sense to me at all. It’s almost like just being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian.”

This isn’t just a New York issue: The country is in a childcare crisis with no national solution.

At the core of this debate is a question of who government services should be for. De Blasio’s vision was to create a childcare infrastructure — a universal model that minimized red tape and bureaucracy. Josh Wallack, de Blasio’s deputy chancellor for early childhood education, described this as creating programs that are “for us,” instead of “for them.” But Mayor Adams and Chancellor David Banks are reverting to a scaled-back, means-tested approach, which subjects families to a whole host of complicated, often contradictory, bureaucratic hurdles in order to access services. (I reached out to the Department of Education several times for comments on this story, but they declined.)

Adams’s administration insists in press conferences and interviews that there is simply a lack of demand, claiming that 25 percent of seats will be unfilled this year — or 30,000 out of around 130,000 seats city wide. The Citizens Committee for Children’s 2023 report finds that there is not a lack of demand for seats, but rather difficulty accessing programs that meet the needs of families. For example, many 3-K and pre-K programs end at 2pm, which is impractical for many families.

Emmy Liss, former chief operating officer for the Division of Early Childhood Education under de Blasio, grew animated discussing enrollment and recruitment, telling me the Adams administration had created a damning self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Those seats were full. Those seats are empty now because they are not taking the steps to fill them,” she said. “And then the more they publicly degrade the program or confuse people about whether they have access to it, the less likely it is they’ll proactively apply, and then your enrollment continues to spiral.”

As a New Yorker, my own experience reflects this: The program has no presence in my neighborhood, and other parents I talk to are often confused. Ironically, even as the city insists there are lagging enrollment numbers, this has created a real scarcity mindset. A recent email to 3-K parents was encouragingly entitled “Learn About 3-K Waitlists!” The email read: “Great news — 3-K results will be released May 24...Due to limited seats not all children will receive an offer.” This kind of doublespeak has confused parents across the city, including me.

Both New York and the country writ large are at an inflection point in the public conversation about early childhood care and education. The architecture designed by the de Blasio administration was, as Madina Touré wrote for Politico, a “pioneering education policy” that “remains the single biggest achievement from de Blasio’s two terms in office.” The program was inclusive, forward-looking, and integrated into the city’s social fabric: It was critical infrastructure, like paved roads, clean water, and wireless internet. Wallack told me the hope was the program would “attract families to make lives here…and we believe in that vision still.”

That vision sounds pretty good to me. New York City Council, which is for the first time female-majority and has an unprecedented number of moms serving, introduced a bill in March to provide universal childcare to every child in the city and has aggressively pushed back against this administration’s attempts to cut preschool. There is hope that, with sustained pressure, the administration will decide to restore the promise of universal childcare to a prized position.

This week, on May 24, I continued refreshing my email, mentally doing the math of what we’d need to cut if we didn’t get a seat in 3-K for All. With programs in my neighborhood running between $1,600 and $2,000 a month, it’s no exaggeration to say that this email would change our lives.

It pops up on the ten thousandth (or so) refresh, and… we were some of the lucky ones. My daughter was offered a seat at her existing daycare — which means that she’ll get to go to school this year, for free. I breathe a sigh of relief, and start imagining what the extra money will mean for our family. I think, too, of the other parents across the city and the country who were not so fortunate. Together, we look forward to the day when free, high-quality preschool is available to every child — without the waitlist.

*To protect the privacy of those interviewed, the author uses a first name only for the parent mentioned in this story.

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Lost in the Labyrinth: Helping Parents Navigate Early Care and Education Programs (New Practice Lab, 2023): Our team collected data on the fractured care system across all 50 states to begin illustrating the complexity that families face.

Four Lessons for Improving Equitable Access to High-Quality Pre-K (Education Policy, 2023): Pre-K programs will only achieve their intended goals if they ensure that they are accessible to all families they are designed to serve. New research offer four lessons for investments in public pre-K systems.

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