Photo by Adi Talwar
Wanda Ruiz teaching her universal Pre-K class for 4- to 5-year-old children at the Chung Pak Day Care Center on Walker Street. The daycare center is a part of the Chinese-American Planning Council, Inc.
If Bill de Blasio does decide to run for president, his signature program—universal pre-kindergarten—figures to be important to the mayor's case to Democratic primary voters.
But it could be an awkward time to showcase UPK because of a widening dispute between the administration and the nonprofit organizations that carry out much of the city's early-childhood work.
In a letter sent to the mayor on April 25, 70 signatories from the city's non-profit world demanded that the administration withdraw two requests-for-proposals issued earlier this year for different parts of the early-childhood system.
'We are outraged that the RFPs advanced by the Department of Education (DOE) starve the early education system of sorely needed investments even as teachers threaten to strike and providers consider closing classrooms or entire programs to remain financially viable,' the letter read.
The mention of a strike is a reference to a threat by District Council 1707 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents many of the pre-K teachers employed by nonprofits that serve about 60 percent of the kids in the program.
The fact that those teachers make far less than their Department of Education counterparts in the UPK program—teachers with a master's degree make $17,000 a year less at CBOs at hiring and $36,000 less after a decade of service—has long rankled nonprofits, who note that the nonprofit teaching staff is overwhelmingly comprised of women of color.
Last week, 1707 withdrew its strike threat as it continued to negotiate with the administration over pay parity.
But parity is just one of several issues critics say undermine the new RFPs—one of which covers birth-to-five early childhood education, the other the city's HeadStart programs.
One system, three bidding processes
The RFPs came out in early March and responses are due in early June. Nonprofits that make winning bids would start their new contracts in July 2020. The RFPs represent a milestone for early-childhood ed in New York: combining the UPK program for four year olds with de Blasio's new 3-K initiative and the Early Learn program for younger kids that is now run by the Administration for Children's Services.
'New York City is now bringing all contracted birth-to-five early care and education services under the management of the DOE, and procuring services under new service models with the goals of increasing quality, equity, access, and sustainability,' the Birth-to-Five RFP reads. 'There will now be one system, administered by the DOE, serving all children.'
A third RFP, dealing with the city's Family Childcare Network, is expected out soon. One of the complaints providers have is that it is unclear how all three RFPs are supposed to work together.
Other problems, however, lie deep in the weeds of the proposals.
The birth-to-five RFP, for instance, distinguishes between 'core' and 'non-core' teaching hours, with the 'core' comprising six hours and 20 minutes a day on 180 days each year.
In the RFP, the city says it is 'committed to providing additional funding to extended day and year slots to enable programs to offer services beyond the core day and year' but the DOE also signals that it might reimburse providers at a lower rate for those other hours, by noting that the teaching staff during non-core hours can be different and classrooms can be combined.
'There's a perception from the providers we've talked to that the RFP implies you can use different staffing ratios for non-core hours,' says Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York.
Michelle Paige, associate executive director of early childhood programs at University Settlement, believes a misconception lies beneath that language. 'This is not a lighter version of elementary school where the bell rings at 2:50 for a totally different model of the day. If we're open for 10 hours, we have 10 hours of programming we have to provide. We don't get to turn off a 'core' switch.'
Paige also worries that the DOE's funding for non-core hours could support staffing that does not meet state Department of Health standards: 'If the funding shifts, it's really possible that programs will be out of compliance because they can't afford to have the necessary personnel in place.'
The RFP also says, 'Programs may also choose to allow children [in core-hour programs] to stay for additional hours and days … and may charge families a fee (via tuition) for those additional services.' This concerns March because, 'Families who rely on extended day and summers are normally the poorest New Yorkers, so it's not like they could purchase something else.'
The DOE tells City Limits it is not reducing the number of extended day or year slots, and that the designation of "core hours" is required in order to comply with state funding guidelines.
The de Blasio administration says the early-childhood RFPs were produced after an intense engagement process involving dozens of public information sessions, advisory group meetings and the release of a white paper last fall.
"Through an incredible partnership with community-based providers, we've made high-quality Pre-k a right in New York City, launched and expanded 3-K, and now we're taking the next step in building a strong birth-to-five system at DOE," says Raul Contreras, an administration spokesman. "We'll continue to engage providers and advocates, and move towards solutions that work for everyone."
Worries about recruitment and costs
Starting in 2020, the DOE will handle all recruitment for the childcare, 3-K and UPK programs and assign students to different providers. But if a providers' enrollment runs short of its contract, its reimbursement could be reduced.
Program managers say they have to create budgets and hire staff around expected enrollment. A reduced reimbursement can then create a budget gap—one that centers will be powerless to narrow because they cannot recruit additional students to fill the seats.
"The problem is that the DOE would be the gatekeeper of enrollment," says Paige. Providers will have no way of knowing how the department presents options to parents, some of whom might believe—incorrectly–that being in pre-K in a DOE building gives their child a leg up when it comes time to apply for a spot in kindergarten there. "We don't have any access to that information. So we will lose people. We have lost people. We continue to lose people," Paige says.
The letter also complained that the RFPs do nothing to support the indirect costs of the program, like administrative staff or insurance, and include no mechanism to account for rising expenses during the life of the contract—which is for an initial term of five years with up to three, one-year renewals. (The DOE counters that providers will be allowed to propose budgets that cover costs like furniture and rent).
Those flaws are common to human-services contracts, but given the duration of the birth-to-five deal, the size of the program and its importance to de Blasio's equity agenda, UPK providers had hoped for better.
A legacy in the making
Universal pre-Kindergarten will enter it sixth school year of operation in September, with an annual budget just shy of a billion dollars and a head-count of about 67,000 kids.
The three-year-olds program is entering its third year, serving 5,000 students at 187 sites in six districts. The short-term goal is to get 3-K to serve 19,000 kids in 12 districts by the fall of 2021, at a cost of $203 million. The longer-term goal of expanding 3-K citywide would require state or federal help, the administration says.
Whether he runs for higher office or not, UPK will be a foundation of de Blasio's legacy. That lends the criticism of how the program has been funded a sharper edge. 'The administration has financed its signature initiative, Pre-K for All, not only with a significant public investment,' read the City Council's response to this year's preliminary budget, 'but also by paying the thousands of CBO teachers far less than their DOE counterparts.'
The disparity affects morale as well as paychecks, according to Paige. 'It's just a very bad cycle that early-childhood teachers and staff are caught in,' she says. 'And it's disconcerting to see that the RFP did not at least attempt to mitigate some of that.'
The Council proposed spending $89 million on pre-K salaries as a 'first step' toward correcting the imbalance between what DOE and CBO teachers make. But it's not clear how big a step that would be, since the administration has not made clear how much it is willing to spend or how many students it wants the programs to serve.
That has made it hard for Councilmembers and others to determine just how much support de Blasio is willing to give his biggest claim to national fame. 'There's no kind of road map to where they think we're going,' says March. 'It's hard for providers to determine where they should throw their weight.'