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Adams Administration Backpedals on Huge Cuts to Pre-K and 3-K Programs

"We're gonna resolve that issue," Schools Chancellor David Banks told the City Council.

Schools Chancellor David Banks testified before City Council Monday. (Emil Cohen / NYC Council Media Unit)

You know those big cuts Mayor Eric Adams has been planning for the City's early childhood education budget, slashing funding for pre-K and 3-K programs, much to the consternation of parents? They're probably going to be reversed soon, Adams's school chancellor David Banks told councilmembers in a hearing on Monday. 

"I am fighting like heck to make sure that those cuts are restored, and I have great confidence that in the coming weeks, we will have really good news around early childhood. The Mayor's Office—City Hall—feels the same way," Banks testified. "Parents in New York City are waiting to see if these cuts are going to be restored. I'm fighting for that to happen. And I believe that is exactly what is going to happen in the coming weeks. So I can't say much more than that right now. But I'm very confident that we're gonna resolve that issue."

The news was welcome, if somewhat confusing. Until now, the administration has been framing cuts to the early childhood education budget—$170 million in mid-year cuts over recent months—as a correction that acknowledges that many seats funded through the program don't actually get filled. But on Monday, Banks was characterizing them as a difficult choice dictated by a grim budget outlook, to be avoided if at all possible. "The cuts that are being affected in early childhood are extremely hurtful to the entire enterprise of early childhood," Banks told the council.

Brooklyn Councilmember Rita Joseph, who chairs the council's Education Committee, tried to make sense of this pivot. 

"Several times, the administration testified before me, and it was always about, we have too many seats, misallocated seats," she said.

Well, yes, that too, Banks answered. "It is a complex issue in terms of that we believe that it has, in fact, been a misallocation of seats, so we still stand very firmly by that," he said. "Nonetheless, we were informed by [the Office of Management and Budget] that we had to place these PEGs"—the Program to Eliminate the Gap cuts—"and that's where, that's where it came from."

OK, Joseph pressed, but if the problem has been one of misallocation, the appropriate solution is to reallocate seats in early childhood programs to where they're needed. Indeed, the City is paying a consulting firm $760,000 to identify where these seats should be allocated. 

Critics argue that the problem of empty early childhood education seats isn't just about having too many spaces in some neighborhoods and not enough in others, a problem the Adams administration has said it inherited from its predecessor, but rather has to do with the administration doing a bad job getting families who could use the programs enrolled. First grade enrollments have held relatively steady in recent years, Brooklyn Councilmember Lincoln Restler noted at the hearing, but pre-K enrollment has dropped by 20 percent since the onset of the COVID epidemic, and 3-K enrollment is even lower. There are currently roughly 77,000 pre-K seats and 53,000 3-K seats available.

"I'm deeply concerned about the future of early childhood education in New York City," Restler said. "We have a ton of work to do to actually get kids into the seats."

But here lies the root of the conflict: The Adams administration doesn't view getting as many kids into seats as possible as its goal. Unlike Mayor Bill de Blasio, who envisioned 3-K as a universal program benefiting all New York children, the Adams administration has said they're less focused on enrolling as many kids as possible and more interested in providing a good program to poor families who need it most. That more modest goal is also more easily achievable, especially given that much of the funding that launched universal pre-K was federal COVID relief money that is now drying up and hasn't been replaced. 

At the same time, the Adams administration has insisted that anyone who wants a seat in the 3-K program can have it, even as many families have found themselves on waiting lists and the City's consultant's own analysis shows that demand will outstrip availability next school year. 

"The mayor is not Mr. Mean—he's not here just like, 'I want to just randomly cut programs,'" Banks told councilmembers Monday. "He is working with the reality of the dollars that he has to work with, and so am I."

But the mayor is also working with the political reality that rolling back universal entitlement programs—especially a program that can make the difference between being able to work and raise a family in New York City and not—carries enormous political risks. A growing coalition is coalescing to hit the mayor where it hurts if he tries to scale down the City's early childhood education commitments. If the mayor does indeed end up walking back his latest cuts, that increasingly organized pushback may have had something to do with it.

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