Mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned for re-election in 2017 on a promise of instituting “3K-for-All” — a logical extension of the popular citywide launch of universal pre-kindergarten (UPK) for 4-year-olds during his first term. At the time, neither he nor the voters may have envisioned parents dropping their 3-year-olds off for preschool at private homes and apartments. But 3K home-based daycares are now part of the City’s plan for the fall of 2020, according to a white paper on early childhood education released by the Department of Education (DOE) last week.
Unlike its massive, high-speed launch of UPK, the City has been introducing 3K more slowly, adding a few community school districts each year and focusing first on those with high concentrations of poverty. It is in low-income districts where elementary schools are overcrowded and child care centers scarce that the City is most likely to turn to licensed family daycares — most of which operate in private neighborhood homes — as additional sites for 3K classes.
Local advocates and providers say bringing these providers into the 3K fold is a smart move. These programs give families the option of small, homey settings for their young children. Unlike most schools, which aren’t equipped to take care of children under 5 after the school day ends, family daycares can stay open for a full workday. And if the City finds ways to maintain these small programs as mixed-age settings, toddlers in the home daycares will have the option of staying put for 3K, allowing for more consistent caregiving, and for siblings of different ages to stay together.
But there are also ways this could go wrong. As the Center for New York City Affairs will detail in a report we’ll publish later this month, if family daycares or the network organizations DOE expects to support them are not adequately supported and compensated, or if standards for them are set too low, they could provide substandard services to the low-income children that the 3K initiative is particularly keen to benefit. There could also be damage to the city’s delicate ecosystem of child care, diminishing the already severely limited supply of licensed infant and toddler care available to poor, working families.
To prevent these outcomes will require a balancing act. DOE will need to make careful decisions about what is reasonable to ask of teachers in the family daycares, and how to help them succeed. They must grapple with philosophical issues, including how much to honor the approaches that home-based caregivers have developed over years — sometimes decades — of practice, and where the City can advance its own vision of early education. And through it all, the City must keep careful watch on the larger system of child care that working New Yorkers depend on — especially on the limited, precious stock of infant care slots.
In its white paper, DOE commits to maintaining infant and toddler care. Nevertheless, a potential loss of infant and toddler slots in family child care resulting from expanding 3K remains a real concern. Here’s why. Taking care of babies costs more than taking care of older kids. (That’s in part because the State rightly requires that babies have more robust staffing than older children.) So most family daycares that serve infants and toddlers also serve older children. With the advent of free 3K programs such family child care providers might lose 3-year-olds and go out of business. Allowing them to participate in 3K, on the other hand, could go a long way toward helping keep them viable, and also prevent a loss of infant and toddler seats.
At the same time, creating such a mixed-aged 3K model specifically for family daycare will be challenging. 3K has early educational objectives that in other settings are assumed to be carried out by certified teachers. DOE has not yet specified teaching requirements for family child care providers. However, at the low rates currently paid to family child care, providers have no incentive to increase their levels of professionalism.
Achieving high-quality early education across all family child care settings will require paying subsidized providers more and investing in and incentivizing program improvements. Providers should be able to receive higher rates as they meet quality benchmarks and achieve credentials. Many states already provide such tiered levels of payment for subsidized family child care providers that encourage them to pursue professional development and program improvement; New York State should start doing that too.
Mayor de Blasio has often said he wants New York to be “the fairest big city in America,” and rightly considers his administration’s investments in early education a key part of realizing that vision. Family child care has long been the most common form of child care for New York’s very youngest and poorest children, and the City is wise to be making it an important part of its early education strategy. If the de Blasio administration can, as promised, protect the precious child care slots these providers offer while also infusing them with new funding and resources, it will be a huge win for the mayor’s vision, and the city.
Kendra Hurley is a Senior Editor at the Center for New York City Affairs and leads the Center’s Research on Child Care and Early Education. This article was originally published by Urban Matters.