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Watch: NYC mayoral candidate Shaun Donovan on early education, youth programs

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The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Christina Veiga (0:00)  

So thanks again for doing this. The point, or the thrust of the interview, is early education and youth services, like after school care, center programming, that sort of thing. So, I want to start kind of big picture. There’s a lot of attention now at the federal level, on early education issues and affordability. And so I’d love to ask you, with all of the additional federal attention and resources that are being steered to this area, how would you prioritize that money? Where would you, for example, build out additional capacity versus strengthening what we have?

“Unprecedented federal funding is on the way. High-poverty schools are starting to reckon with how to spend it.” by Matt Barnum and Kalyn Belsha

Shaun Donovan (0:39)  

So, in terms of a focus on on early education, Christina, I think the first thing I would say is, we need to make sure at this New Deal moment, where there is, as you said, a once in a lifetime, potential investment in children and families, that we have a mayor at City Hall, who has the relationships, the knowledge, to be able to work incredibly closely with not just the Biden-Harris administration, but also with all of our leaders in Congress to be able to make sure that New York gets a fair share of that of that funding. And you I’m sure, you know, New York sends $23 billion more to Washington each year than we get back in return. And I really, as a former cabinet secretary, for President Obama, as a former budget director, leading the $4 trillion budget, I have unique ability as a mayor to make sure that we get our fair share of that investment, to transform the opportunities, and the lives of children and families in this city. And what I would say is, it is absolutely right, that we need to keep building on the progress that we’ve made on early childhood education. And that means getting not just the universal Pre-K, but universal Three-K. With that investment, but there are also significant areas where we need to do better than we’re currently doing. And one area that I would really point to, is that we very much have a focus, and investment that is different depending on whether those are school based Pre-K and Three-K, or that they are community and family based. And we know that for example, the payment to the teachers in those settings, the benefits, the workspaces, and the classrooms themselves, are quite different across those different groups. And so, we really need to make sure that every seat in Pre-K and Three-K is a quality seat. And I would significantly increase the investment particularly in our family based and community based centers, to bring them up to the level of the school based centers, so that there’s real equity there. And that we’re investing, because right now we see so often, and you know this, you know, folks that are trained at family or community based centers, who end up leaving very quickly. And it’s very hard to make the investments, the training. The other thing is to build the quality workforce that we need unless we’re doing more there. So there’s clearly an expansion that needs to be happened particularly on on Three-K. But there also needs to be a much better equity and investment to make sure that every opportunity for early learning is a quality opportunity. And if we do that, we can fundamentally change the trajectory of children in this city. Right now, the single gate greatest predictor of a child’s life chances, even their life expectancy, is the zip code they grow up in. And that’s fundamentally wrong. We cannot have a city where your zip code determines your future. And so my 15 minute Neighborhood plan is focused on every single element that would give every child a headstart, and ensure that they’re really building the opportunity that they that they need. And that’s something that I would ensure we have centers in every single neighborhood.

Christina Veiga (4:24)  

So I want to zero in on, you know, you mentioned zip code being determinant of outcomes. So the city has really made strides making Pre-K and affordable childcare option. Sorry, the city has made strides making Pre-K more available, but infant, toddler care options can be really hard to come by, and really expensive. There’s a backlog of families who are waiting to receive vouchers to help pay for care, even while seats at centers go empty. I would love to hear your understanding of where you think the problem lies there? What’s causing it, and how would you fix it?

Shaun Donovan (5:00)  

Well, first of all, and we’ve seen this again and again, that the difference between rhetoric and reality under Mayor de Blasio has been wide. And again, to give him credit for getting to the huge expansion in Pre-K that we did is great. But we see, in so many different areas, this is just one of them, where there are promises made around getting resources to families. And the reality of that the actual management, and competence in delivering that, is a huge problem. And I think fundamentally, what we see so often is a lack of real outreach into communities, into neighborhoods. As somebody who started working 30 years ago, with nonprofits around the city, I know that community based organizations, not just in education and childcare, but also in housing, in social services, can be the best partners to reach families, and make sure that we are signing them up quickly, overcoming language and trust barriers that often stand in the way of families even applying in the first place, to make sure that we have a robust pipeline of applicants, and that we can use the resources that we have. And of course, we have to go beyond that. And that’s why I go back to this is a New Deal moment, we have an opportunity with a huge investment in human infrastructure, not just physical infrastructure. But, rightly President Biden, Vice President Harris, want to make a huge investment in the infrastructure of our families, of our children. And this is an opportunity, not just to make sure that every voucher we currently have is going used, but to dramatically expand the opportunity for childcare and early learning across this entire city. And I would make sure one of the things we need to do is make sure that those immigrants, and those who are undocumented, to have that chance as well.

Christina Veiga (7:10)  

So one of the things that the Biden plan calls for or pays attention to is pay in the early childhood workforce. And you’ve already sort of hinted at this, there have been strides in New York City towards more pay parity. But for people who have been working in community based organizations (CBOs), for a long time, and for teachers in Special Education, Pre-K centers, there’s still a long way to go. And so I’d love to hear from you. What is your plan for salary parity? And do you have a timeline in which you’d like to see that accomplished?

“Does Biden’s plan for a $15 minimum wage for child care workers go far enough?” by Ann Schimke, Cassie Walker Burke, and Koby Levin

Shaun Donovan (7:39)  

Well, I think, absolutely, I have a clear plan on that. And I would say, more broadly, Christina, The New York Times, The Gotham Gazette, have said that I have the most detailed comprehensive education plan of any of the candidates in the race. We are running the campaign of ideas. And we’ve really laid out I think, the most comprehensive agenda to get to pay parity, ensuring that every seat in Pre-K, Three-K, every opportunity we have for childcare is, we not just have the quantity we need, we have the quality that our children and our families deserve, and pay equity, and equity in benefits, equity in opportunities, is an enormous part of doing that. So, I believe that this is something that we could get done in my first term, particularly with the deep relationships, and ability I have to tap into federal investments on this side. But to do it, I think it’s not just going to take the resources, it’s going to take the partnerships as well. What you often find is and you know this well, is many of these centers are small. They don’t have the technical expertise necessarily to fill out grant writing and paperwork. We need to reduce the red tape. And one of the things that we can really do is create and grow the nonprofit intermediary organizations, that help these centers survive and thrive. So to be very specific, the bookkeeping, the applying for assistance, the payroll and accounting, all of those things need to be things that we help many of these centers with, so that they can focus on our kids. And so, not just investing quickly in the pay and the benefits themselves, and getting to that parity, but ensuring that we’re creating an infrastructure to help those centers survive and thrive, is a critical part of my plan as well.

Christina Veiga (9:53)  

Yeah, I know your plan talks about breaking down silos in that area. I want to ask you about extended day, extended school year slots. Many working families with young kids rely on programs that provide care for a longer period of time than the traditional Universal Pre-K (UPK). And also for the entire school year. You know, otherwise they’re left without care. That more of these slots are needed the extended school day, extended school year. So, do you think there should be universal access to extended school day and school year slots? And if so, when might we expect to see that under your administration?

Shaun Donovan (10:33)  

So it is absolutely the right goal Christina to try to get to full day, full year, opportunities for every student. We know this is a fundamental difference. And we’ve seen this past year, the profound differences for frontline essential workers who have to be on the job in person, who have full days, so many families working two, three, four jobs to try to make ends meet. This is a central part of equity in our city is to make sure that every family and every child, has the opportunities for their kids to learn. And frankly, not to get drawn into crime, and violence, and other activities that so often happen outside of school hours, when young children, and and later older children, don’t have the opportunities that they need. So this is absolutely central to make an exact commitment on how quickly we could get to universal, I think we need to see what happens with the Jobs Bill. As you know, $2.3 trillion has been proposed, and whether we can get close to that, whether the critical pieces of investment in human infrastructure, as I’ve said, and social infrastructure, are fully funded is going to be critical to determine whether we can get to this full universal access to those extended hours and summer, within my first term. But it’s absolutely something that I’m committed to getting to. What I would also say is, this isn’t something that’s just important for our early learners, our younger children, this is something that I’m very much committed to throughout school. I’m the one candidate who’s made a commitment that every single high schooler should have at least one paid internship, apprenticeship, summer job before they graduate, that I would get to that in my first term. And we need to make sure that those kind of opportunities are available at every age, and that they’re critical. I would also just say, having released the most comprehensive food plan of any of the candidates in the race. I also know that summer meals are a critical part of the infrastructure that schools provide as well. And that’s something as we focus on summer that we have to ensure as part of the plan as well.

Christina Veiga (13:07)  

So you mentioned jobs for high schoolers, I want to touch on youth services. So after school and summer programming are really important for working families, and provide support such as food security, mental health supports that sort of thing. But many of the providers who provide these services in the city say that they’re trapped every year in a “budget dance” where they have to advocate every year to get the money reallocated. And so are there programs, youth programs that you think deserve more stable, long term funding? And if so, which ones would you want to see a longer term commitment to?

“NYC official: Funding for summer jobs program expected to increase, following year of steep cuts?” by Reema Amin

Shaun Donovan (13:43)  

Well, I absolutely believe there are many youth programs that deserve bigger and more stable funding. And I’m absolutely committed to that. Part of this, Christina, is we don’t treat nonprofits in the city, like the critical partners that they are. I started working with a nonprofit, in my first job out of school 25 years ago. A nonprofit that was rebuilding the South Bronx and Central Brooklyn, so many of the neighborhoods that I had seen crumbling, even burning as a child. And so my perspective is that, those are the critical partners to translate promises into reality, real change in the lives of children and families. And yet, we don’t pay them effectively. We don’t pay them quickly. In fact, during this crisis, when they were most needed, we stopped paying so many of them, and we pay them in a way that we expect, it’s as if the good feelings that they get from helping our children, and families should be enough rather than really compensating them in ways that allow them to pay their employees well, to build working capital, to invest in becoming the institutions that we need. So for me, it’s not just expanding the funding that’s available for programs, but actually treating nonprofits as the incredibly important partners that they are, and starting to do to do justice on that side as well. And I think that’s a critical part of making sure we have the full human infrastructure we need for those kind of programs for young people late in the day, in the summer. Those are all critically important. I’m also especially excited about the programs that start early exposure to potential jobs, we really have to build a cradle to career pipeline for our children. And so for example, on my Five Borough Food tour, I visited in Snug Harbor in Staten Island, the largest working farm in the city, that engages children starting at a very young age in understanding how things grow, how to eat healthy food, and but also exposes them potentially, to an interest that might lead to careers in the future that are really powerful. And those kinds of connections I would make, to my Youth Climate Corps, for example, that I’ve proposed as part of my climate plan, there are many, many areas where we can be doing that early, or early on, and really getting children connected to the food they eat, and to potential future careers.

Christina Veiga (16:30)  

Wanna zoom out a bit, so we’re not going to have a new mayor when the new school year starts. But I would love to hear from you how you think the city, or what the city should be doing right now, to build trust with families so that they actually return to classrooms. We’ve seen a huge drop off in Pre-K enrollment in the city during the pandemic. We’ve also seen that Black families, Asian families, are far less likely to be in buildings, than White families. And so if if you were mayor, what would you want the city to be doing, and saying right now, to have those folks come back?

“No remote learning option for NYC next school year, de Blasio announces” by Amy Zimmer and Alex Zimmerman

Shaun Donovan (17:14)  

Well, Christina, unfortunately, we’re having this conversation now, when we shouldn’t even have needed to have it. If we’d had a mayor who led in the right way. We could have gotten schools open last September. And we could have done it most importantly, in a way that really emphasized, and focused on, the children who were most likely to be left behind. And to be clear about that. If we’d really responded to what our principals, our educators, our parents were saying, we would have been able to get the ventilation right in our schools, we would have been able to use our communities as classrooms, whether it was outdoors, whether it was our libraries, our YMCA is our gym, gyms, others that were not in use, and could have become part of the learning experience, given that we would have had to reopen with far fewer children per classroom. And so that was a huge missed opportunity. And in particular, if we had done it knowing that there were going to be certain families, as you said, our students of color, our families of color, second language learners, so many others who would be more resistant, who were not getting the vaccines, and the testing that they needed. We could have actually focused on those families and use this moment. President Obama, you say to us, “you cannot let a crisis go to waste.” This could have been a moment actually to close the inequities in our school system, rather than have them widen even further. And that would have required as well a deep investment in devices, and getting to affordable broadband. For so many families, the issue isn’t having devices, it’s their service isn’t fast enough, especially when you’ve got two parents and a whole bunch of kids at home trying to use the same network. And so this was a huge issue that we should have focused on, and needs to be a focus right now. We do need to give families choices. And we need to make sure that their children can learn remotely if that’s the choice they made. But we also need to be doing everything we can to build trust around vaccines, and testing, so that our young people, and our families feel feel safe in doing that. And that’s why I have a most aggressive plan on mobile vaccination teams opening vaccination sites in public housing community rooms, in libraries, in places around the city that are fundamental to getting to those. And then, deep partnerships with nonprofit groups and others, so that we can get to families in their languages. Because often the message doesn’t matter if it’s not through a trusted messenger. And so we need to partner with those trusted messengers. The last thing I would just say is, I would set the tone immediately as mayor with my Chancellor, I would ensure that we were out meeting with parents and families, immediately I would do a five borough listening tour as one of the very first things that I would do as mayor, to start rebuilding that trust, given how much it’s been broken.

Christina Veiga (20:31)  

I want to ask one more question and then open it up for you in case there’s anything that we haven’t touched on that you think is really important to include. So there’s a lot of attention paid to segregation in the K-12 system in New York City, but Pre-K classrooms are actually more segregated than kindergarten classrooms. But this often gets left out of the conversation in New York City. And so do you have any ideas for how, and where the city can start addressing racial and economic segregation in its Pre-K classrooms?

“Racial, economic gaps are widening among NYC’s free pre-K programs, researchers say” by Christina Veiga

Shaun Donovan (21:02)  

So, I absolutely have ideas. I would say the biggest, boldest idea is about how we address segregation, starting at a very early age. And first of all, it begins with the fact that, we’re never going to truly solve segregation and inequality, unless we focus on our housing. Because the racial segregation in our neighborhoods is a root cause of the segregation that starts at an early age. And that’s why I led, as housing secretary for President Obama, the real, giving it for the first time really, since the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, real meaning to what the Fair Housing Act intended to do, which is actively promote integration and more equity in our neighborhoods. This is why Christina, when Donald Trump still had a Twitter account, he was attacking my work last year with the racist statement that we were trying to destroy the suburbs by ensuring that Black and brown people could live wherever they choose in our city, in our country. And I would, as mayor make absolutely make sure that every New Yorker can live wherever they choose. And so that’s a root cause, particularly at the earliest ages, because as you know, neighborhood based childcare and early learning opportunities are critical for families across this city. So that that’s one root issue that we need to attack, and nobody would attack it, you know, in a more aggressive way than then I would. Second, what I would say is, especially as we move toward better equalization of centers, that family and neighborhood based centers are improved, in quality, in pay, in benefits. That’s going to have a disproportionately positive impact on families of color to make sure that we have better opportunities. I also think starting at a very young age, we need to be thinking about changing the way we screen kids. I believe testing at four-years-old for gifted and talented, all the the evidence is, that it is not effective way. And so as we’re building out more opportunities for quality early learning in Black and brown neighborhoods across this city through my 15 Minute Neighborhood proposal. At the same time, we have to make sure that we’re building a system that gives access to our youngest learners, to all the special opportunities that our current gifted and talented program provides. And building out more seats in those in those neighborhoods as well. Lastly, I would just say that, it’s going to be critically important that we ensure at our youngest ages, that we’re making investments in things we know work for reading, and others, particularly for students with disabilities. What we know is that the early earliest screening that directs children into those programs, into Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) has real discriminatory elements, and we’ve got to take a hard look at that, to ensure that we’re not tracking Black and brown kids into directions in school at an early age, that are going to fundamentally change their chance at opportunity. And this is something I’m the only candidate who is proposed creating a Chief Equity Officer reporting directly to me as mayor that would have purview over education, and every other agency in the city. And that’s going to be critically important to make sure that we’re measuring, in every single one of these areas, what the different impacts are for communities of color in New York, and ensure that we’re making changes continuously to ensure equity in every area.

Christina Veiga (25:10)  

Is there anything that we haven’t touched on in terms of early education, childcare, after school programming, summer programming, to include in this interview?

Shaun Donovan (25:24)  

Yeah. So just building on what we’ve talked about, I would say, to two more things. One is really on equity more broadly. This is in early learning, but throughout the system. Building on my Chief Equity Officer, making sure that we create a publicly available equity report card for the entire city, for every school district. That would really allow parents and families to know the truth, and to hold our school system accountable. That’s going to be a critical piece, and establishing a diversity and integration office, within the Department of Education that really coordinates all these efforts. Those are pieces that I think really go to this issue of equity, that I know you’ve been so focused on, and Chalkbeat has been so focused on, that’s going to be critically important. The last thing I would just say, though too is, you know, stepping back, we have to understand that this has been a year of trauma, of pain, of loss, like no other for our children and our families. And and as a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the 70s and 80s, who was moved to enter public service because of the terrible crisis of homelessness, of abandonment of neighborhoods, that I saw around me, having lived through, and led through 9/11, and [Hurricane] Sandy, and the mortgage crisis. Crisis-after-crisis in the city. None of those, I believe, has done as much damage, has created as much trauma, pain and loss, for our children and our families as this past year has. And so starting at the very earliest ages, we need to make sure that as we’re getting our city back, we are making sure that we’re not just getting children and families back into the classrooms, back into early learning centers. We have to really focus on that trauma. And so for me, in addition to adding 150 social workers to our school system, and also making sure that we’re really creating, I think one of the most innovative proposals in my education plan, the Education Recovery Corps. I would put young people to work, CUNY students, recent graduates, hopefully the teachers of the future in our city, that will increase diversity in our in our classrooms, and then increase our diversity of our teaching corps, that we’re putting those Education Recovery Corps to work, not just to accelerate academic recovery, but to really focus on the social and emotional needs of our children. And as you know, for our young children that may not be verbal. It’s going to take real training to understand through, whether it’s drawing, or other kinds of innovative channels, arts, and dance and movement, helping our youngest children really deal with the trauma, the pain and the loss that they’ve been through. You know, my wife’s a landscape architect, and one of the very first projects she ever worked on was a therapeutic garden, to help young children who’ve been through trauma who couldn’t verbalize it. They are really innovative ways that we could begin to partner with our early learning centers to deal with this trauma and loss, to ensure that our children recover not just academically, but emotionally as well. And unless we do justice to the pain and the loss that our children have have gone through, and our families have gone through, we’re never going to allow them to really fully heal from this year that we’ve all been through.

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