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Child services chief says youngest kids’ care must be funding priority

Administration for Children's Services Commissioner Ron Richter advocates firmly for new EarlyLearn initiative

Ron Richter, Commissioner of the Administration for Children's Services, faced Council pushback on new EarlyLearn program. Photo: ACS

Amid protests by parents and child care providers against program cuts proposed in the Bloomberg administration’s preliminary budget, the city’s top children’s services official detailed plans to reinvest some of those funds into services for younger children.

In a hearing last week on the budget for the Administration for Children’s Services, Commissioner Ron Richter shared details on EarlyLearn NYC, a new early-childhood initiative that will get underway this year and serve a larger number of very young children than current child care programs can reach.

“There is more infant and toddler care in EarlyLearn, and this is far more costly,” Richter said.

EarlyLearn centers, to be run by private providers under contract with the city, will also provide care to children for longer time periods than existing services: a minimum of eight hours and a maximum of 10 hours a day.

Testimony at the council hearing referenced a wide range of estimates of the number of existing child care slots that would be lost in order to pay for EarlyLearn’s more expensive services. The Administration for Children’s Services has estimated that 3,100 childcare seats would be lost to pay for EarlyLearn NYC. The City Council’s Finance Division calculated 8,200.

Some children’s advocates assert the number will be much higher. Betty Holcomb, the policy director for the Center for Children’s Initiatives, a non-profit which works with parents, providers and policymakers, testified that the Mayor’s preliminary budget could result in nearly 47,000 children losing child-care or after-school services, and an estimated loss of 7,700 after-school vouchers serving schoolchildren.

“Without these vouchers, working parents of elementary school–aged children will not have an affordable option for after-school care,” Holcomb said.

Randi Levine, an attorney at Advocates for Children of New York, said EarlyLearn should not be used as a pretext to cut existing child care services. “The city must provide funding to ensure that EarlyLearn can serve the same number of children currently participating in child-care programs,” said Levine.

But proponents of EarlyLearn say focusing on younger children is long overdue. Drawing on research that children who have access to early care and education programs show “significant growth” in vocabulary and oral-learning abilities, spelling and math skills, the Administration for Children’s Services highlighted the need for better infant and toddler care in its 2005 strategic plan. According to the department’s findings, a 4-year-old was almost 10 times likelier to receive services than a 1-year-old. With EarlyLearn, it hopes to shift the child-care priority to infants and toddlers from the lowest income families of the city.

The contracts for EarlyLearn, which is supported by the Departments of Education, Health and Mental Hygiene and the Mayoral Early Care and Education Steering Committee, will be announced next month. Richter will be briefing the Council on the program once again in mid-April after the announcement.

Councilmember Brad Lander of Brooklyn questioned whether it makes sense to cut slots to ensure better quality. Richter said most EarlyLearn centers will be located in needy neighborhoods, relying on a formula based on poverty levels and the number of recipients of welfare and affordable housing program, among other indicators. “The goal is to make childcare available where children who will benefit the most from the service live,” he said.

Holcomb, the policy director for the Center for Children’s Initiatives, also raised questions about the level of resources going in to EarlyLearn, calling the program’s funding structure is “inadequate” to support the administration’s vision for the services.

“Many prospective providers are apprehensive about the funding levels,” said Holcomb.

In another point of contention between lawmakers and Children’s Services, the EarlyLearn centers have been asked to pay for 6.7 percent of their operating costs. “How do you suggest that community-based organizations, assuming that they are successful in getting the EarlyLearnAwards, will be able to raise 6.7 percent of the budget, given that they live in some of the poorest neighborhoods?” asked Councilmember Letitia James of Brooklyn.

Richter noted that Head Start, the federally funded program for 3- to 4-year-olds, asks providers to contribute nearly 20 percent, and that “in kind” contributions from organizations count.

Councilmember Charles Barron, who also represents Brooklyn, asked what the impact would be on those who couldn’t raise the amounts. Richter’s response: “I don’t have an answer that I think is going to be satisfactory to you.”