The Mabel Barrett Fitzgerald Day Care Center sits within the Amsterdam Houses public housing complex, recently the site of a sweeping drug bust. A few blocks away, however, glitzy Lincoln Center is flanked by some of the most expensive apartments in Manhattan.
The location provides rich field trip opportunities for the Fitzgerald program, which this year received city funding to serve 58 low-income children. But now the center’s zip code could take a toll on its budget.
The threat comes from the funding structure underlying EarlyLearn, the Administration for Children Services’ ambitious reform of the city’s public daycare system. This summer, ACS is requiring that all public centers, including Fitzgerald, submit applications showing why they deserve continued funding, and next spring, some programs will learn that they have not made the cut.
The evaluation process will focus on quality. But it will also take into account something outside centers’ control: their address.
Under EarlyLearn, the number of city-funded daycare seats across the city will drop, and ACS plans to allot a larger portion of the remaining seats to neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of needy families. To assess need, ACS is looking primarily at the poverty level in the zip code where each center is located. That means that centers in high-poverty zip codes stand a greater chance of receiving continued funding, while the number of slots in more affluent neighborhoods could decrease sharply.
Childcare experts and center directors say this approach could shut out poor New Yorkers who live in relatively affluent areas. In particular, they say, residents of some housing projects are at risk of being left without the childcare on which they’ve come to rely.
“In a community that may not have as many children in need, but does have a deep pocket of poverty, those impoverished children still require care,” said Randi Levine, an attorney at Advocates For Children.
Lisandra Lopez, the director of the Fitzgerald center, said she was disturbed to learn that the number of city-funded seats at her program would likely be reduced.
“They gave us some numbers based on the zip code, and some programs, like ours, fall in the non-targeted area, which means that we don’t have a high number of children subsidized by the city,” she said. “The problem is that our purpose is to serve the families in this community. So they are looking at the community as a whole, and it feels like they aren’t considering the families we serve.”
Lopez said EarlyLearn’s funding structure could push out the neediest families. “If we do not receive the funding, we would have to take students for private pay,” she said, meaning that the center would enroll more families who could pay tuition. “The people here couldn’t afford that, and we would have to serve a different population.”
Todd Seward, the assistant executive director of the Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, which oversees the Fitzgerald daycare center, offered an even more dire appraisal. “I am worried because the number of slots will be significantly reduced,” he said. “There is a potential for [the center] to be eliminated altogether.”
Seward said daycare centers in housing projects are the most likely victims of the zip-code approach to determining need. “These pockets of poverty are highly concentrated,” he said. “Often those pockets are NYC housing developments. And as the gentrification increases, you see these pockets surrounded.”
In the Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, the Gowanus Houses are located one block from the vibrant restaurants and boutiques of Smith Street. The nearby Bethel Baptist Day Care Center, which nearly fell to budget cuts this year, receives about a third of its students from the housing project.
“They can very easily deny our proposal,” Bethel Baptist’s director, Joan Morris, said of ACS.
The city believes that allocating fewer daycare seats to relatively affluent zip codes is necessary in a time of tight budgets, according to Sara Vecchiotti, ACS’s assistant commissioner of policy planning and analysis.
“We have targeted capacity in the highest need communities in order to ensure that our limited resources are invested in expanding or sustaining capacity in neighborhoods in which the largest number of eligible children reside,” Vecchiotti wrote in an email.
But Levine said that this approach too narrowly conceives of need. “It makes sense to look at communities that have the highest need,” she said. “But we clearly need to look at community need in different ways. … Children who live in housing projects live in poverty regardless of what their neighbors have, and they need an early child-care program as much as children in areas of widespread poverty.”