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NYC Children’s Services Officials Roll Out New Plan: “Rethinking Child Care”

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Can Mayor Bloomberg and the NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) follow through on their promise to reform the city’s early child care system? Recently, the New School University’s Milano Graduate School of Management and Public Policy brought together officials from ACS as well as a panel of child care advocates to discuss the specifics of a much-heralded new plan, “Rethinking Child Care,” for improving accessibility and continuity of the city’s early child care services while ratcheting up their efficiency and accountability.

Based on data that show that high quality, early learning programs can and do improve children’s chances for later successes in school and in life, “Rethinking Child Care” is rethinking big. John Mattingly, ACS Commissioner, kicked off the Milano program by promising that “we’re going to make some history in early childhood care.” His plan hopes to coordinate a patchwork quilt of centers and home-based providers that provide subsidized care to more than 135,000 NYC children under the age of six, and that are currently overseen by three separate city agencies: ACS, the Human Resources Administration (HRA), and the Department of Education (DOE).

Mattingly’s Deputy Commissioner, Dr. Ajay Chaudry, a former Milano faculty member and author of Putting Children First: How Low-Wage Mothers Manage Child Care, filled in the details with a six-point strategic plan worthy of any Fortune 500 company:

With data showing that the current system accommodates only 30 percent of the estimated 275,000 children from low-income families in NYC and only seven percent of children under two (and research shows that a huge portion of human development occurs under the age of two), the ACS will shift services to target the neediest families. The plan will eventually modify contracts to reimburse providers based on actual enrollment and enable programs to enroll voucher and private-pay families.

Because current red tape discourages families from seeking services, the plan will simplify enrollment forms, streamline eligibility and community-based enrollment, and redesign the parent information system.

To improve and monitor the quality of care, ACS will develop a single assessment mechanism while improving the oversight of home-based care and performing background checks on informal providers.

To improve facility expansion and management, the plan will train and support sponsors to take responsibility for maintaining and negotiating their own leases, while developing new facilities in underserved areas.

To remedy the fragmented child care system, the ACS will coordinate inter-agency data oversight and integrate its own child care and Head Start functions.

To streamline services for low-income families, the City will integrate the child care provided by HRA (to recipients of public assistance engaged in work activities) within ACS.

Most panel and audience members welcomed ACS’ program overhaul as long-overdue. Several agency directors expressed concern about the new requirement that providers attain 100 percent client enrollment in order to maximize systemic efficiency. One provider stated her concern that this could force agencies to serve only the most stable families. Dr. Chaudry defended the requirement as a means for redistributing services from underutilized programs to those with greatest need, and he promised that ACD will offer technical assistance to help providers improve their service utilization.

Some providers further questioned whether the efficiencies included in ACS’ model, such as the 100 percent utilization requirement, are actually budget cuts masking as program overhauls. Panel member Helen Blank, Director of Leadership and Public Policy at the National Women’s Law Center, noted that “the picture in Washington is not very bright,” referring to a House Ways and Means Committee spending bill that would enact multi-billion dollar federal budget cuts in child care programs over the next five years. “To raise money for Hurricane Katrina victims, new funds must be offset by cuts in other programs,” added Blank.

However, she urged that it is all the more “essential that states and communities lead the way” for the rest of the country. “Keep telling the people in Washington that you’re on the right track, because they’re on the wrong one,” urged Blank.

In a telephone interview with Sandy Socolar, Child Care Analyst for District Council 1707, AFSCME, Education Update has learned that there is far deeper community concern about ACS’ proposed realignment. For starters, the plan was a “complete surprise…developed in-house….without community involvement,” according to Socolar. Among the most egregious problems, the new 100 percent enrollment requirement “changes the fundamental bedrock funding policy for day care centers.” If reimbursement moves to a per child basis based on attendance, “boards of directors won’t know if they have enough money to pay their staff.”

A second major concern is the new stipulation that agencies take on the direct leases with their landlords. Because the city is entitled to terminate its contract with an agency at any time, both landlords and agency boards of directors would be hesitant to assume the financial risk of a lease without NYC backing. But the real “elephant in the living room,” according to Socolar, is ACS’ assertion that it will shift its funding to underserved age groups.

“ACS will still have to provide voucher funding for the school-aged children whom they plan to displace from currently existing child care centers, which will not leave ACS with the funds to support more infants and children. Furthermore, infants and children can be well served at much less cost in family day care homes,” asserts Socolar. Socolar promises that the day care unions will “put together an improved plan. We hope to point out misdirection and move it in the right direction,” she concludes.#



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