Hundreds of parents, children and teachers gathered on the steps of New York's City Hall Tuesday to protest Mayor Michael Bloomberg's budget plan, which calls for big cuts to city early childhood education and after-school programs.
The rally was organized by the Campaign for Children, a coalition of more than 150 New York organizations that oppose the cuts. Last month, in his preliminary budget proposal, Bloomberg proposed cutting $170 million for children's services. The coalition has urged him to reconsider. Funding for childcare and after-school programs has dropped each year since 2009, and the city's subsidized child care and after-school systems serve 43,000 fewer children than they did five years ago. If the mayor's new cuts go through, that number will decline by an additional 47,000 slots.
Earlier this week, Christine Quinn, the speaker of City Council and arguably Bloomberg's heir apparent, called the cuts "unacceptable."
On Tuesday, three caucuses within the City Council -- the Progressive Caucus, the Women's Caucus, and the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus -– echoed that opposition in letters to the mayor. And at the rally, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stinger, Councilman Lew Fidler, and other politicians and advocates joined the chorus of criticism. "I believe that after-school programs and child care programs are not luxuries, they're necessities," said Councilman James Vacca.
Samantha Levine, deputy press secretary for the mayor's office, called the city's early child care "among the most generous and comprehensive." She alluded to Early Learn NYC, an effort by the Bloomberg administration to improve the quality of publicly funded child care. Starting in the fall, the administration plans to roll out this new system, which it claims will allow it to weed out weaker child care providers. While the change may help some kids, it will also cost more, meaning fewer kids will have an opportunity to reap those benefits and some high-quality centers may be forced to close.
The debate over child care comes at a critical time for children. Over the last decade, child poverty has increased by 18 percent, according to a report last year by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and one in four children in New York live beneath the poverty line. At the same time, the last 10 years have seen researchers gathering a mass of data attesting to the vital importance of early childhood education in helping kids climb out of poverty. The Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman found that every dollar invested in pre-school eventually yields a return of $7 to $9 as the pre-school alumni graduate from high school and college and enter the work force. Other studies have focused on the role of child care in insulating children's brains from "toxic stress," the stress hormones found in destructive quantities in the brains of children who grow up in poor families and poor neighborhoods.
New York is hardly the only battleground for debates over child care. Rep. Paul Ryan's recent budget proposal called for massive cuts to the early childhood program Head Start, and the Obama administration is requiring some Head Start providers to compete for funding, raising the ire of many early-childhood-education providers and advocates, who have filed a lawsuit against the administration.
At the rally, as the politicians took turns addressing the crowd, a group of women stood off to the side, taking in the shade on the border of City Hall park. They said they worked at a Head Start program run by the Police Athletic League, one of the groups that make up the Campaign for Children. And like many Head Start teachers, they first got involved with the program as parents of young children.
Natasha Coates rattled off a list of all the things her son had learned in Head Start -– the alphabet, "sight reading," social skills. "Wow, Davonte was awesome," she said. Another teacher, Linda Muniz, chimed in. "With the Head Start, I really learned how to prepare my son for kindergarten," she said. "He went through the ranks of school, he's in college now."
Muniz said she worked until recently at a center in Brooklyn that will close if it loses its city funding. Some of her former colleagues might lose their jobs, she said. And some of the parents in the neighborhood might lose an opportunity to give their kids an educational boost that could translate to a good job in the future.