Cuts to New York’s pre-K spell political trouble for Eric Adams


March 1, 2024

A coalition of parents and left-flank politicians is mounting a hands-on challenge to Adams’ budget cuts to the popular program.

NEW YORK — Mayor Eric Adams has been rolling back his predecessor’s nationally renowned preschool program amid budget cuts. Now, parents and political opponents are using those rollbacks to build a case against his reelection next year.

New York City parents, past City Hall officials and left-flank politicians are assembling a movement to thwart Adams’ plans for $170 million in cuts to the city’s prekindergarten program — cuts they believe will help them vilify Adams’ record on income inequality.

New Yorkers United for Child Care, a newly formed nonprofit, is organizing with 1,600 residents on a listserv and helping 40 parent leaders this month hit playgrounds, grocery stores and coffee shops to collect signatures for their petition to halt the cuts. City lawmakers took to the streets last month to appeal to New Yorkers as Friday’s deadline to apply for prekindergarten was approaching. And The People’s Plan NYC — a coalition of progressive groups — is considering running paid ads and urging its members to reach out to voters throughout the city, including in neighborhoods that comprise Adams’ political base to alert them to the cuts.

The action amounts to the left’s strongest and most organized push yet against Adams in his third year as mayor. It comes as he faces blowback over multibillion-dollar budget cuts that fueled his record-low approval rating in December and will serve as a test of whether New Yorkers have soured on his centrist politics and are yearning for a more progressive Democrat.

While toppling an incumbent is difficult — and weakening the connection the city’s second Black mayor has with his multi-racial, working-class base even harder — the issue is fueling his opponents anew.

“It is like political suicide to take away from parents one of the things they hold near and dear which is the 3K and pre-K programs that New York City offers,” New York Working Families Party co-director Jasmine Gripper said in an interview. “A wise politician would actually be doubling down and expanding these programs.”

Even those generally aligned with the mayor are raising alarm: A think tank formed by his allies — unaffiliated with the left-leaning movement — is out with a report this week pushing City Hall to adopt policy changes to boost access to child care.

Adams came into office promising leaner budgets and has attributed his reduction to a misalignment of preschool seats. Though he canceled a third round of planned budget cuts, pre-K and 3K classes still face $170 million in reductions, and 3K — a program for 3-year-olds — is at risk of losing $93 million in soon-to-be-expired federal stimulus funding.

The city Department of Education reported 53,000 3K seats and 75,000 traditional pre-K seats in fiscal year 2024, which ends June 30. As of December, 10,000 3K and 15,000 pre-K seats remained vacant. The education department plans to maintain seats for areas in need and alter the number of seats to match demand the following fiscal year, a spokesperson said.

Among the areas utilizing the programs the least: the Lower East Side, East Village and Harlem in Manhattan and parts of the Bronx — in some cases overlapping with neighborhoods Adams won in the 2021 mayor’s race. As of now, every district has some empty seats.

Ana Almanzar, deputy mayor for strategic initiatives, pointed to expiring federal stimulus dollars and the impact of the cost of asylum seekers. But she maintained that every parent who wants a pre-K or 3K seat for their child will receive one.

“We continue to look at the supply and demand and allocate [the seats] as needed,” Almanzar said.

Nevertheless, the mayor of the nation’s largest city — who proudly touts his hardscrabble upbringing as a connection to New York’s working-class residents — is now facing pushback from families questioning whether they can afford to live in the Big Apple.

New Yorkers with children under the age of six move out at more than twice the rate of those without young children, according to a soon-to-be-released analysis from the Fiscal Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. In New York City, child care costs between $16,000 and $20,000 annually. And mothers who live in districts with more 3K availability are more likely to be in the workforce.

“The poll numbers very clearly reflect a frustration with the mayor that’s very closely tied to challenges New Yorkers are facing with the cost of living,” said Monica Klein, a New York-based Democratic consultant who also sits on New Yorkers United for Child Care’s advisory committee.

Klein worked for Adams’ predecessor, Bill de Blasio, whose signature achievement was implementing a citywide pre-K program early in his first term.

While some de Blasio staffers are joining the resistance effort to Adams’ cuts, the ex-mayor — an ally of Adams — declined to comment for this story.

Politicians rumored to be eying mayoral runs to Adams’ left are capitalizing on the issue.

“We can’t afford child care in the very city that we were born and raised in,” state Sen. Zellnor Myrie said in a recent speech in Albany, referencing conversations he has had with his wife about starting a family.

Scott Stringer — an early contender in the 2021’s race before a decades-old sexual misconduct allegation that he vehemently denies hobbled his campaign — has announced he’s considering running again and told POLITICO early childhood education should be a budget priority.

“I think budget speak is getting the best of them. We need to make early education a priority,” Stringer said. “It’s clearly not a priority when you’re cutting seats and cutting programs. … It’s a program that mayors after de Blasio should be expanding.”

Signature program on the decline

De Blasio made waves in 2014 when he unveiled a universal pre-K program in the nation’s largest school system with financial assistance from then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The initiative has drawn praise from prominent Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders and Nancy Pelosi.

In 2017, de Blasio announced plans to expand it to all 3-year-olds by 2021, with a mixture of city, state and federal funds. That money didn’t materialize, and he relied on temporary federal stimulus dollars to help the city rebound from the pandemic — putting Adams in a difficult financial position.

Adams decided to chart a different path, abandoning de Blasio’s universal 3K goal and reallocating $568 million in federal money in late 2022. The following year, amid pushback from the City Council, he agreed to increase the number of extended year 3K seats.

City officials say mismanagement of the system predating Adams led to empty seats. But advocates argue the current administration eliminated a dedicated early childhood outreach team. (The DOE contends that team was simply moved to a different division within the sprawling agency.)

“Seeing Mayor Adams pull back on those promises, I find it really hard to wrap my head around how he can do that and continue to think middle class, working class, even upper middle class families will be able to stay here,” said a former staffer for the DOE’s early childhood division, granted anonymity to speak freely about the current mayor.

Adams made a $120 million cut in November and an additional $50 million reduction in January. The city is also lagging on providing preschool seats to students with disabilities, and facing a $96 million reduction in spending tied to federal funding.

But the choices are not only fiscal.

Adams is looking to make his own mark on education policy. In June 2022, he launched a blueprint for child care and early childhood education that included plans to design a new office, unveiled last February with Michelle Paige as its executive director. But Paige stepped down in the fall, and the administration has yet to appoint a replacement. Officials said the search is underway.

Adams defended his administration’s work, including reducing the cost of child care as well as the MyCity portal to facilitate signing up.

“One of the greatest inhibitors for women getting into the workforce is dealing with child care,” he told reporters Tuesday. “We have focused on that and we wanna find the right person to fill that position.”

An official familiar with Adams’ thinking dismissed his political opponents and countered that other parental organizations and unions like District Council 37 — the city’s largest — are working with the administration to secure state funding.

“Every time a far-left political organization or a group uses this issue in political ads or as a way to organize against the mayor, they’re harming their credibility on the issue,” said the official, who was granted anonymity to speak freely about the mayor’s perspective. “Today it’s this issue, tomorrow it’s some other issue when the real goal is to try to unseat the mayor.”

He added: “It sounds good to say we expanded child care by thousands of seats, and we’re offering it to any New Yorker who needs it. It’s quite another thing to actually do it.”

Parents take matter into their own hands

New Yorkers United for Child Care is just getting underway, but the parental constituency is growing.

The organization has raised $150,000 this year — $40,000 of which came from grassroots donations from parents at a November fundraiser, according to the group’s executive director, Rebecca Bailin. The remainder came from the New York Women’s Foundation and other established organizations.

Meanwhile parent leaders across the city have collected more than 1,000 signatures for the group’s petition in just a few months — and aim to get more during a day of action planned for March 17.

“We are a group of New Yorkers who are becoming a political — and I don’t mean in the partisan sense — but a force, a constituency that they need to consider when making budget decisions,” Bailin said. “That pre-K and 3K and universal child care is something that we need to prioritize in New York and not mess with.”

The nonprofit’s co-founders include Bailin and Liza Schwartzwald of the New York Immigration Coalition. Two de Blasio aides who were integral in the pre-K rollout — Josh Wallack and Emmy Liss — are also involved in the effort, as is Amshulah Jayaram of the Alliance for Quality Education.

Council members take to the streets

As the City Council gears up for preliminary budget hearings, many lawmakers have declared funding for pre-K and 3K a budget priority, while also pushing for more data on the empty seats.

“If we’re using data to drive our policy, we should be looking at where the seats are open, why they are open and then let’s adjust those seats to meet the needs of that particular community,” Council education chair Rita Joseph said.

Council Member Althea Stevens and Day Care Council of New York, a membership organization of providers, organized a recent day of action to reach constituents at subway stops and grocery stores.

Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez — who participated in the canvassing and is reintroducing legislation to require the city to offer free childcare to children as young as six weeks — said: “People are not gonna sign up if they don’t know it exists and when you have a mayor saying very publicly that they’re gonna cut 3K and that’s the only soundbite you hear.”

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