If the COVID-19 revealed the gaping holes in the US’s public health safety net, the shut down of schools and childcare centers demonstrated how such institutions were fundamental in allowing workers to work. Juggling the demands of remote work or limited childcare options forced many parents and caregivers into impossible situations. The federal government provided some funds to expand on childcare, but for the most part, state and local governments did not step in to help parents and caregivers. There were no policies initiated to protect the jobs of parents and caregivers during school closures, childcare services for essential workers were highly limited, and the struggles of parents were largely dismissed or ignored.
But one positive outcome of this crisis was a widespread recognition that childcare, especially early childhood education, needed serious reform. A broader coalition has emerged to support more universal and accessible policies. For example, in 2021, the New York Times unfavorably compared the United States’ private childcare system with the heavy public investment of peer countries. A pediatric cochlear implant surgeon, Dr Dana Suskind, made a splash arguing for more government assistance for early childhood care. Joe Biden’s doomed Build Back Better (BBB) bill would have revolutionized childcare in America for most families over the long haul.
Yet BBB never passed, and parental grievances over their unmet needs led to surprise upset Republican gubernatorial victories, like Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, as Democrats failed to understand how parental alienation and marginalization remained a politically salient issue in the pandemic’s second year. Even “tough-on-crime” Eric Adams ran his first television ad for his New York City mayoral candidacy to include a commitment to universal childcare and other social policies.
New Yorkers, especially parents like me, might have felt a little smug as Build Back Better entered the national political discourse, since Biden’s early childhood education plan appeared to be based on New York City’s own policies. The move toward expanding early childhood education was well underway before the pandemic. But Mayor Eric Adams is moving the city in the opposite direction, weakening the city’s childcare programs rather than strengthening them.
Former mayor Bill de Blasio campaigned heavily in 2013 on creating a universal pre-K (UPK) program. The program began in the most high-needs districts and eventually became institutionalized citywide, and it is a huge draw for families. All the children in my son’s birth cohort (born the year of de Blasio’s election) were guaranteed a spot at a universal pre-K facility in their district. Because of limited capacity, some children attended pre-K at a public school, and some at a private school or preschool that ran a publicly funded preschool for four-year-olds. The only requirement to qualify was that the child lived in New York City.
As a result, UPK was extremely popular across classes and communities, and New York’s successful rollout of UPK was one of de Blasio’s most successful and popular achievements, with an enviable public education campaign, immediate recruitment of teachers, and available pilot seats within one year of his election, and seventy thousand four-year-olds (including my son) enrolled in the fall of 2017.
My children were born three years apart, so when my second child started private day care, I had the great fortune of sending my four-year-old to a high quality, early childhood education program right in my neighborhood, free of charge. This was a game changer for my family. Soon after my second child was born, de Blasio announced a universal 3K (U3K) program, providing public funding for high-quality education and care for the city’s three-year-olds, in April 2017. The program was gradually rolled out in “highest needs” communities.
In 2021, before de Blasio left, he called for an expansion of 3K seats in the city, allowing for more students in more districts to have access to seats. The vast majority of federal stimulus money bookmarked for the Department of Education (DOE) went to expanding 3K seats, but the federal funds would run out by 2026. De Blasio’s funding plan expected a robust post-COVID recovery to provide necessary tax revenues to cover ongoing 3K expenses.
But instead of continued investment during this period of transition in the New York City DOE, Mayor Adams has recently walked back his commitment to universal 3K seats and is now saying he is “committed to optimizing access to care, as based on family need and preference, for ages birth to five” — and refusing to commit to expanding the program to be truly universal.
Citing low enrollment, as fewer seats are currently being filled than offered, Mayor Adams seems to be moving away from de Blasio’s vision of early childhood education for all three-year-olds in the city. Parents, advocates, and socialist elected officials recently gathered on the steps of city hall to protest the systemic underfunding of our education, early childhood, childcare, and preschools, but the Adams administration has not yet responded.
Adams understands that changing a formerly universal program is an effective way to erode its political support and popularity, reducing a universally beneficial program to a means-tested “entitlement program.” Keeping this program universal will bring a diversity of families into our public school system. It creates strong ties within our communities. It removes stress from families who may not have affordable care options. It provides employers with stability, knowing that employees can rely on quality early childhood education to watch their kids during the school year. Continuing to offer 3K as a universal program helps ensure that it will be well funded and high quality, because a diverse coalition of stakeholders will fight to protect such a program.
Municipal governments must recognize the necessity of more social protection for families at a time of economic and public health uncertainty. Policy studies have demonstrated that every dollar invested in U3K saves the city $13 in future spending.
As a mayor who crows a lot about public safety, Adams would do well to fund and promote the U3K program as a way to promote healthier and safer communities.