Fearing Closures, Union Advances Day Care Plan

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In its latest and perhaps final attempt to challenge the city’s new funding model for public day care centers, a local union representing child care workers last week presented an alternative plan that it thinks could prevent the potential closing of scores of centers in the coming years.

District Council 1707’s “plan to save day care programs” calls for an immediate moratorium on all day care center closings—17 of which have shut down in the past four years—and provides a list of recommendations for the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) to increase enrollment at its centers. A number of union leaders and elected officials have endorsed the plan, including Bill de Blasio, chair of the General Welfare Committee of the City Council. At a press conference outside City Hall last week, he called on the Bloomberg administration “to take this plan as seriously as they should.” DC 1707 hopes to meet with the administration to encourage the Mayor to intervene and resolve the issue.

The union claims that ACS’ new funding model, Project Full Enrollment, which was announced in February and will take effect in September, could lead to the closing or downsizing of more than 90 day care centers, many in low-income communities in Brooklyn and the Bronx. That’s because centers that were once paid at a flat rate based on capacity will now be funded only based on the number of children enrolled. In other words, any centers that aren’t operating at full capacity will no longer receive full payments from ACS. (See City Limits Weekly #627, Feb. 18, 2008, Funding to Follow Kids at Public Daycare Centers.) DC 1707 and other opponents of the model point out that it fails to account for fixed costs at the centers—such as rent and salaries, which don’t fluctuate based on enrollment—and therefore will lead to serious underfunding.

ACS has said that it intends to help each center remain open and fully enrolled. “We understand that there is a lot of concern in our communities that the city is undertaking an effort to eliminate child care centers,” ACS Commissioner John Mattingly said last week in testimony to the New York State Assembly Committee on Children and Families. “I would like to be very clear that there is no strategy in New York City to close programs.”
ACS maintains that the new model, which is the latest step in its Rethinking Child Care strategic plan, is necessary because the key to achieving full enrollment at the centers is to create incentives for the day care programs—and funding, everyone agrees, is a strong incentive. And for a city trying to tighten its belt, under-enrollment at the centers is a costly problem: In fiscal year 2007 alone the city paid $40 million for vacant seats at day care centers, according to ACS figures. They expect to save $4 million in the first year of the plan’s implementation.

But as critics of the plan have noted, under-enrollment is a strange problem to have in a city where ACS admits that less than one-third of children from low-income families receive some form of subsidized day care. (See City Limits Weekly #621, Jan. 7, 2008, Day Care Realignments Spark Citywide Concern.) “What are they talking about with under-enrollment? There’s a group of thousands of eligible kids,” said Neal Tepel, assistant to the executive director at DC 1707. Opponents of the plan would like to see ACS focus more on reaching out to this large population before implementing Project Full Enrollment.

Later this month ACS will release a report—the Community Needs Assessment—with a neighborhood-by-neighborhood analysis of child care needs and availability, which ACS hopes will help centers better plan for program changes. According to Mattingly, funding changes may require some centers to adjust their program designs, reaching out to higher-income families who can afford to pay the $13,000 annual day care bill and serving children of different ages and needs.

As an alternative to Project Full Enrollment, DC 1707 proposes using what’s called a “blended funding” model, where only a portion of the centers’ funding is tied to enrollment figures. The universal pre-kindergarten and Head Start programs already use such a model; their fixed costs are fully funded while their variable costs, such as administrative supplies and educational materials, are funded based on enrollment. De Blasio said he agrees this model “should be utilized when possible.”

ACS spokeswoman Sharman Stein would not comment on that idea in particular, but said a task force on day care enrollment is looking at how “to reimburse every center in a way that’s fair, while incentivizing full enrollment.” In March, Commissioner Mattingly convened the task force, made up of day care center managers, advocates, researchers and union representatives to develop plans for the implementation of the new initiative. Recommendations should be presented by the end of June, Mattingly said.

Training and technical assistance for the centers will most likely begin this summer, said Stein, and will continue into the implementation of Project Full Enrollment. “What we expect is that programs will develop the necessary skills and expertise to continue these new models of attracting children and doing whatever else is necessary to be fully enrolled on an ongoing basis,” she said.

The union plan also tries to address the factors that lead to under-enrollment in the first place, explained Tepel. For example, the plan calls on ACS to improve its marketing and outreach efforts by offering more comprehensive information on its website and initiating a “Big MAC” (Massive Admissions Campaign), which union officials said has been effective in the past at increasing enrollment numbers.

DC 1707 also argues that ACS must restructure the day care program to adapt to the changing needs and realities of the current child care market: Vacant classrooms should be converted to offer Out of School Time care to young children attending nearby schools, and the income limit for eligibility should be raised to 275 percent of the federal poverty level for all family sizes. This will not only help centers to fill vacancies, the union argues, but will also provide a much needed service to moderate-income families.

Neal Tepel was blunt in describing his feelings about the difference between the union and city plans. “We have developed a program to save day care,” he said. “The city has not.”

– Tram Whitehurst

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