When New York City schools received more than $7 billion in federal stimulus money last year, city officials planned to spend more than a quarter of it on one of then-Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature initiatives: expanding preschool for 3-year-olds.
His administration, however, never outlined how the city would pay for the program once those federal dollars ran out by the 2025-26 school year, only saying that he felt confident the economy would bounce back by then.
Now, as Mayor Eric Adams stares down a potential $10 billion budget shortfall when federal dollars dry up in three years, observers are concerned that the city may not have enough money to pay for the growing program.
City officials declined to say whether they wanted to make preschool universal for 3-year-olds as de Blasio had planned, instead saying that the education department was “committed to optimizing access to care, as based on family need and preference, for ages birth to five.”
And the mayor and his schools chief, David Banks, seem to have their own agenda that Adams campaigned on: making care for children under 3 more affordable for low-income families, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
That could leave many families who are banking on child care and early learning for their 3-year-olds without subsidized options, according to budget watchdogs and organizations that represent preschool providers.
“The concern is really, if you’re offering a service that’s gonna be expected to be recurring, you need to tie down funding for it,” said Ana Champeny, vice president for research at the Citizens Budget Commission, a nonpartisan budget watchdog nonprofit.
Officials did not say how they plan to pay for the popular program once federal relief dollars run out nor have they shared plans to scale back stimulus spending.
“Federal stimulus dollars will eventually sunset, and we look forward to working with our partners from all levels of government towards a sustainable path forward for investing in high-quality Early Childhood Education programs,” education department spokesperson Suzan Sumer said in a statement.
Need for affordable child care
De Blasio began opening free preschool programs for 3-year-olds in 2017, after successfully launching universal preschool for 4-year-olds. Using federal stimulus dollars, the city opened 3-K seats in every community school district last year.
Prekindergarten for 3-year-olds was the only grade where enrollment actually grew last year, more than doubling from the year before, as the city opened more seats.
Last year, the city offered more than 46,000 3-K seats, a figure that includes spots that are funded by federal dollars, and filled about 38,000 of them. The city was expected to open about 8,000 more this school year, according to the education department.
Nathaniel Styer, a spokesperson for the education department, tweeted that there are neighborhoods where many seats go unfilled, while in others, there are not enough to meet demand. For example, this year, Southwest Brooklyn had 1,054 available 3K seats and 53 left unfilled. But in the Bronx’s High Bridge and Morrisania, just under half of the 2,400 open seats had been filled.
Rebecca Iwerks, who lives in East Harlem with her husband and three children, enrolled her 3-year-old daughter in a city-funded program near their home. Before this year, she and her husband, who both work, were paying for daycare that cost nearly as much as their rent.
Iwerks’ daughter has “been really happy,” waking up each morning asking if she’s going to school. She seems to have been talking more there, Iwerks said.
“Having a more affordable child care option for her is a huge game-changer for us,” Iwerks said.
Several studies have found that preschool is beneficial for children. A 2019 study out of South Carolina found that children who attended public preschool programs had higher test scores in grades 3-5, improving the academic environment for their peers, too. The students who attended the program were also less likely to be disciplined. Another study found that the siblings and children of students who attended preschool did better academically, had better employment outcomes, and were less likely to be involved with crime.
However, a national 2018 study challenged that narrative: It found that public preschool didn’t lead to higher test scores in fourth grade, but there were gains for children in districts with majority Black students.
3-K gets lion’s share of COVID relief money
When federal COVID dollars rolled in, city officials planned to use $2 billion of it on expanding 3-K through the 2024-25 school year. It was the single largest use of the district’s stimulus dollars over time, according to an analysis last year from the Independent Budget Office, or the IBO. De Blasio had planned to make the program universal by next school year.
The problem, budget watchdogs have warned, starts in July 2025, when federal aid will run out. By then, the city will face a $376 million shortfall for 3-K and has not pointed to a funding source to cover the whole program, according to a budget tracker by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. That’s part of the roughly $840 million budget shortfall that the education department will face in 2025 because of programs it has funded using federal stimulus funds.
While stimulus spending on pre-K is increasing each year, the city is spending less on academic recovery for K-12 schools, including for extra services for students with disabilities, as the federal money dries up. The city is also spending less of these funds overall on school budgets due to projected declining enrollment.
Of the roughly 5,000 districts tracked by Future Ed, an education thinktank out of Georgetown University, 225 districts and charters are spending stimulus dollars on preschool or early education — though none at the level of New York City, according to Phyllis Jordan, associate director of Future Ed.
School districts are allowed to use the federal relief on expanding preschool programs, said a spokesperson for the state education department, which signed off on the city’s planned use of COVID dollars. Signaling support for the city’s plan, the spokesperson said that expanding pre-K programs “addresses lost early childhood learning, socialization, and other foundational skills required for long-term success.”
The huge investment of federal dollars drew mixed feelings from Nora Moran, director of policy at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents preschool providers. The city has addressed something that “is a huge issue for working parents” and good for young children, Moran said, but her organization was concerned about using temporary dollars to prop it up.
They raised the issue with the de Blasio administration, only to be told that the economy would rebound, she said. If it doesn’t, community-based providers might have to cut back programs.
“I think it would be probably a catastrophe for a lot of providers and families if you’re seeing a loss of programs,” said Gregory Brender, policy director for the Day Care Council, which also represents preschool programs. “Families end up scrambling, you have workers losing their jobs.”
Even as policy analysts worry about the program’s future, they also want the city to focus on a program that actually works for families. Both Moran and Brender noted that most preschool classrooms run from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., which mirrors the school day but doesn’t cover families who work later. It doesn’t offer the sort of after-school programs that might be available for students in older grades. Moran noted that there are some federally funded preschool seats that go until 6 p.m., but those are in the minority and reserved for low-income families.
Iwerks, the East Harlem mother, still pays for aftercare for her daughter — albeit, at a fraction of the cost – that goes until 5:30 p.m. She feels lucky that the after-school program is located in the same church as her daughter’s 3-K.
“It’s a good question about how all this investment is happening and who’s able to benefit from it if you can’t get child care for a pre-K kid after 3 o’clock,” Iwerks said.
Brender, of the Day Care Council, said that any cuts to the program may invite intense budget fights down the road, and the city must make tough choices about what to do next.
“But we know that families are still desperate for early childhood options, and we do think it’s going to be popular enough where hopefully the city and state would work to continue it,” Brender said.
Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City schools with a focus on state policy and English language learners. Contact Reema at firstname.lastname@example.org.