Morrisania — After waking up from an afternoon nap, a class full of four-year-old children enrolled in the universal pre-kindergarten program at Brightside Academy's Intervale Avenue location in the Bronx briskly stacked their bright blue sleeping mats in anticipation of playtime. Most of the children then devoted the next hour to building with wooden blocks and toy cars or playing an educational game on the classroom iPad.

The families and administration at this center seem to have few worries about the fate of the agency's childcare program for the coming year. All of the organization's New York locations have been awarded contracts under the Administration for Children's Services' new program EarlyLearn NYC beginning this October.

But other families across the five boroughs are now searching for new day care providers after theirs were denied Administration for Children's Services (ACS) contracts. Some agencies might have to close down due to a lack of funding.
        
A new concept

ACS first released the EarlyLearn NYC concept paper in April of 2010, billing it as a way to create uniform, high-quality education throughout the city's neediest communities.

The agency says the program "promises to bring a consistent level of quality to children and families no matter where they receive these critical services" and "expands the capacity of our infant and toddler child-care programs."

The new approach required providers to conduct professional development and child assessments. It also merged childcare, head start, and universal pre-kindergarten under one comprehensive funding system—a move that had support from at least some advocates.

"We support a blended funding model because we believe it could promote high quality standards as long as total funding is adequate," says Randi Levine, an attorney at Advocates for Children of New York.

Promotion of the program did not proceed flawlessly. The RFP released by the agency in May of 2011 was the target of criticism from childcare advocates who worried about the program's limited range. EarlyLearn called for some 42,000 contracted childcare slots, leaving about 7,200 children then enrolled in ACS funded childcare without a place to go. A last-minute increase in the 2013 fiscal year budget expanded the program to 50,000 childcare spots. ACS distributed some of the additional funds, while the rest are being dispensed by the City Council.

A July 25 meeting of the City Council's Committee on Finance approved the distribution of those additional funds to certain childcare providers who were not awarded ACS contracts, restoring some, but not all, childcare programs. These funds will only last one year in comparison to ACS funding, which should last multiple years. Some believe that government funds for early childhood education are still insufficient and may prevent the success of the new childcare system.

"The purpose of EarlyLearn is to make things better," says Jim Matison, Executive Director of the Brooklyn Kindergarten Society. "In the near future, the funds are not sufficient to make things better. To ignore childhood education because of budgetary concerns is shortsighted. 90 percent of brain development occurs in the first five years of school. We cannot ignore that." Matison believes some parents will have to quit jobs in order to care for children that don't have day-care seats.

Providers' concerns

Beyond the number of seats, the method for awarding EarlyLearn contracts also generated discussion. Both existing and newly emerging childcare providers went through an EarlyLearn application process to compete for the available slots. ACS staff reviewed each application and determined which providers deserved a contract based on rankings in specific categories, like money management and fundraising ability. Childcare agencies are now required to fund 6.7 percent of their program through fundraising and private enrollment.

"Essentially you are getting paid 93 percent of your operating cost," says policy analyst Gregory Brender of the United Neighborhood Houses of New York. "This can be a challenge for a lot of providers because you might provide excellent childcare but you might not be an amazing fundraising apparatus."

Additionally, EarlyLearn divided New York City into targeted and non-targeted zip codes in the hope of creating higher childcare availability for children in low-income neighborhoods to target those families most in need. But some saw a downside to that targeting. "What is left out of this program are those nicer neighborhoods that still have large numbers of children in poverty," says Brender.

Some say it is unclear why some agencies won contracts and others did not. "The Brooklyn Kindergarten Society is one of the few societies in the city that raises a lot of money each year. When we were given our ranking, we were marked down in the category that asked if we would be able to make the 6.7 percent," says Matison. "We asked for an explanation, but they had no answers. They only said that someone else in the zip code we applied for had a higher rating. It is all a large mystery."

ACS counters that EarlyLearn awards were made using objective criteria "which considered factors such as a proposer’s relevant experience in the community or with comparable populations, demonstrated commitment to diversity and culturally sensitive practices, demonstrated level of organizational capacity, and quality of proposed approach."

Cautious optimism

Some organizations could be forced to shut down their entire childcare programs in light of the contract awards. Small independent establishments like Twin Parks Child Care Center in the Bronx may have no alternative but to shut their doors by September 30. The center did not receive an ACS funding contract and the families affected will have to look for a new provider.

For families of providers scheduled to close, ACS has hosted multiple parent fairs to connect them with new centers; however, many already have enough enrolled children to fill their maximum capacity.

EarlyLearn requires that family childcare networks, which operate in homes, provide access to center-based care as well in order to receive contracts. For the New York Foundling, which currently manages 75 family service providers but only one center-based location, EarlyLearn will force the closure of all of their daycare services. "We did not receive an award," says Bill Baccaglini, Executive Director of the child welfare organization. "However, we plan to transition our entire program to another agency. If I transition the entire program, the likelihood of the staff staying together would be better and our clients would not have to go search for a new childcare provider."