The city's education department will expedite reimbursement of preschools and childcare centers following weeks of criticism that providers have taken out loans or dug into personal savings to cover costs, cut staff, or even fold altogether.
The city owes early childhood programs more than $400 million, according to the Citizens' Committee for Children, although city estimates are less than that.
At a press conference on Thursday, Schools Chancellor David Banks promised a new “rapid response” team to help providers complete invoices and ensure prompt reimbursement. He promised programs would see at least 75% of their funding for the past year, even if they ultimately enrolled fewer students than expected.
“We are going to stabilize the system to honor the promise that has been made to families and providers,” Banks said.
Many operators were still waiting for funding to cover expenses from the school year that ended in June when they reopened their doors in September.
“We look forward to working with DOE to ensure that all providers are able to immediately receive the funding that they are owed so that their hardworking staff can be paid in full and on time and services can continue uninterrupted,” said the Campaign for Children, which represents childcare providers, in a statement.
Banks said the problem went far beyond monthslong payment delays. He blamed former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration for creating a “dysfunctional” dynamic that offered contracts to providers without precise calculation of where seats were actually needed. Some local nonprofits found themselves competing with new public schools – created through de Blasio’s universal pre-K program. He said that led to many 3-K programs being under-enrolled.
“We have contracted providers who got contracts for 100 students and have no students,” Banks said. Education officials estimate a total of some 40,000 early childhood seats in the city are empty.
De Blasio made free pre-K programs for 4-year-olds a centerpiece of his administration, expanding access by offering new classrooms within public schools and contracting with community-based providers.
Following the success of pre-K, the de Blasio administration then moved on to create more free programs for 3-year-olds, known as 3-K.
Banks suggested the de Blasio administration’s goal was to trumpet a total number of seats rather than matching care with need.
“The proper analysis was not done because the goal was to just get to a big number of seats,” he said.
But Josh Wallack, who oversaw early childhood programming under de Blasio, said he never saw delays like the ones providers have experienced under Adams. He recently tweeted that “the payment systems worked for many years. We certainly had issues in a system with hundreds of contracts, but nothing remotely close to this.”
As the providers’ unpaid bills have accrued, educators and advocates have questioned the Adams administration's commitment to early education.
Hundreds of early childhood social workers and instructional coordinators have been “excessed” and are waiting reassignment, causing confusion and concern among their ranks.
The administration also has begun moving away from plans to vastly expand the number of 3-K seats. Banks told the New York Times he plans to focus more on quality over quantity, noting that the de Blasio administration planned to rely on federal stimulus money to expand the program, but that money is scheduled to run out.
The United Federation of Teachers had planned to hold a vote of no confidence in the head of the education department’s early childhood division, Kara Ahmed. The powerful teacher’s union said her tenure has been “beset by disorganization, confusion, [and] managerial incompetence.”
“Now that we have seen the dismantling of something that worked well, it’s very troubling,” said Karen Alfred, the union’s vice president for elementary schools.
On Thursday, Banks reiterated his support for Ahmed, saying “she is the perfect person to drive this vision forward."
This story has been updated to clarify that the city owes early childhood programs more than $400 million, according to Citizens' Committee for Children.