New York will launch a historic expansion of child care and pre-K capacity, a change made possible by a massive influx of federal aid, new state taxes and a push by lawmakers newly empowered to challenge the scandal-plagued Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Legislation in the budget passed Tuesday will fund 10,000 new subsidized child care slots, offering greater support for working poor parents and ending lengthy delays for households stuck on waiting lists.
“This budget is a hard-won victory for New York’s parents and child care providers who made state leaders understand that recovery cannot happen without robust, sustained investment in early childhood education,” declared a joint statement by the Empire State Campaign for Child Care and Winning Beginning N.Y., which together represent more than 100 child care centers and early childhood advocacy groups.
Experienced legislators celebrated the investments as a milestone not seen in decades.
“In my 15 years in the state Assembly, I have never seen a budget that goes as far as this year’s to assist New York’s children and families,” said Assemblyman Andrew Hevesi (D), chair of the Children and Families Committee, who had recently highlighted child care as the “hottest topic for helping families this year.”
The influx of $2.4 billion in federal aid for child care made possible the significant investment in the industry, with the largest chunk — more than $1 billion — going toward grants to keep struggling day care centers open amid spotty enrollment during the pandemic. Some of that money will be used to supplement wages for the chronically underpaid child care workforce, though it is not yet clear whether it will take the form of wage increases or one-time bonuses, a method used in Georgia and Florida.
Federal aid totaling $700 million will be used to expand subsidized child care, including $100 million to expand care in “child care deserts,” where very few slots are currently available. The new budget also established consistent statewide rules for parents’ eligibility and co-pays.
Going forward, all families earning up to 200% of the federal poverty line will be eligible for subsidized care; previously, some counties cut off eligibility at 125% or 150% of the poverty line, according to data collected by the Empire State Justice Center in 2019. That means a family of four earning $53,000 or less will now be eligible to enroll their children at a reduced rate.
Additionally, the new budget limits co-pays to 10% of a family’s income above the poverty level, whereas they had previously ranged to as much as 35% of income over the poverty line in some areas.
The changes represent a “bold use” of funds that put New York on the path to universal child care, said Dede Hill, director of policy at the Schuyler Center for Analysis and a co-facilitator of the Empire State Campaign.
“It’s an exciting moment,” she said, “particularly after a really terrible, difficult year for New York families.”
In addition to day care expansion, the recently passed state budget allocates $105 million to expand universal pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds to more than 200 school districts that currently lack programs. To date, most pre-K funding has been directed to urban school districts with high poverty rates, like New York City and Rochester, which now have robust capacity. But few seats have been developed in rural areas or in poorer pockets of suburban districts.
The new funding will help expand pre-K upstate and along Long Island, according to Marina Marcou-O’Malley, who leads policy at the Alliance for Quality Education. It will also allow more programs to expand from half-day to full-day care, which offers a more consistent schedule for both working parents and child care workers.
New York is not alone in setting ambitious goals for the future of childcare. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) made universal preschool one of his signature campaign issues, and commissioned a report to explore sweeping changes to the state’s child care system, which was released late last year. Several bills based on its recommendations are now making their way through the state Legislature, including proposals that would make pre-K available to all 4-year-olds, create a sliding scale for parents, and increase pay for preschool teachers.
In New York, federal funds will support program expansions for the next three years, giving lawmakers time to figure out how to supplant the funds over the long term with state revenue.
“Having that money in the budget right now creates a precedent, and makes it incredibly tough to take away,” Marcou-O’Malley said. “I think we have a great deal of appetite in the Legislature to have a stable source of funding for pre-K.”
While this year’s funding windfall is without precedent in recent memory, many advocates see it as a long-overdue recognition of the true cost of caring for children.
“For decades, child care has been dramatically underfunded, so this extraordinary new investment is really just right-sizing the funding,” Hill said. “It represents the direction we need to be headed if we're going to begin treating childcare as the public good that it is and needs to be.”
While the recently passed budget is a good beginning, some say working families need even more support. Many families earning more than 200% of the federal poverty level struggle to cover the cost of child care without a subsidy, said Beth Starks, who runs a child care center in a rural area outside Buffalo. Because New York has a higher minimum wage and cost of living than the national average, she believes area median income would be a fairer way to measure eligibility for child care subsidies.
Starks also noted that New York’s child care system has taken a “giant leap backward” over the past year, with many providers closing their doors and others forced to furlough or lay off employees.
“A lot of this funding is needed just to get us back to where we were pre-COVID,” she said, “before we can actually move the system ahead.”
And without meaningful wage increases for child care workers, she added, providers will have trouble hiring the staff they need to care for children newly eligible for subsidies.
The Empire State Campaign has called for greater investment in special education and therapeutic intervention services for young children with special needs or disabilities; neither program received increased investment this year. Some members also want the elimination of child care co-pays altogether.
“There should be a right to early childhood education,” said Gregory Brender, who directs policy at the Day Care Council of New York and is a co-facilitator on the campaign. “If there were co-pays for a child to go to second grade, we’d have lots of strong opposition.”