Thousands of poorly paid working parents will be scrambling to find a safe place for their children to go after school, thanks to another round of government "streamlining" which has thrown some 80,000 after-school child care slots into doubt.
City officials are eliminating their support for three distinct programs -- the largest chunk is from after-school contractors with the Administration for Children’s Services -- and redirecting it to a new program by the Department of Youth and Community Development.
The new initiative is clearly well-intentioned. It has the potential to open up after-school programs to more of the children who need it most, such as those with disabilities and those who live in underserved neighborhoods. But the worry is that the reorganization will come at the expense of some very good existing programs.
"Nobody is opposed to reorganizing the after-school program system, as long as we don’t decimate the child care system to do it," says Susan Stammler of United Neighborhood Houses, many of whose members operate after-school centers.
“This is the first time that anybody cared much about after-school care," says Stammler's colleague Nancy Wackstein. "We just wish it was accompanied by more resources."
What Is After-School Child Care?
After-school child care is a relative newcomer to the world of human services, but has become indispensable to the growing number of families in which no adult is at home when the school day ends. After-school programs are seen as the solution to other problems as well. Students from inadequate schools are taught extra lessons and tutored in a more relaxed setting. For city children who have no safe places to play, the programs replace backyards, sidewalks and streets used by earlier generations.
Nearly 70 percent of the city’s 1.6 million school-age children use some form of after-school child care, according to a survey by the Citizens Committee for Children of New York (in pdf format). The term can include weekly piano lessons, informal arrangements with relatives and neighbors, and expensive private programs. More often, it refers to government-funded programs, of which three-quarters operate on school day afternoons until 6 p.m. The Partnership for After School Education estimates that subsidized out-of-school-time programs serve over 220,000 New York City children a year.
Parents on welfare receive vouchers from the Human Resources Administration for the after-school care of 22,000 children. Most use the vouchers to buy informal care in private homes. Their children are not getting the level of care they would receive in more structured formal programs.
An even larger group of children receives no care at all. Among children whose parents’ education ended in high school or earlier, almost 40 percent are not attending any kind of after-school program. They are likely to be found among the one child in eight, between the ages of five and nine, who is left home alone during an average week.
The after-school child care system has been patched together from funding sources as varied as vouchers, block grants, “surplus” welfare funds, private foundation money, and fees paid by parents. The result is a mix of programs that can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $6,000 per child each year. The most comprehensive are open year-round and on holidays, working to help children develop academic, physical, social and emotional skills. At the other extreme are short-term courses, single athletic events, and drop-in activities attended by an ever-changing group of participants.
A few days before Christmas 2004, several hundred after-school programs were told that their contracts with Administration for Children’s Services would end in September 2006. To get new contracts, they would have to respond to a 174-page Request for Proposals issued by the Department of Youth and Community Development.
The city has proposed to cut $27.5 million from the total spent on three old programs, passing the remaining $64 million on to the new Department of Youth and Community Development program. Most of that is earmarked for programs open from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on school days, offering a mix of homework help, extra classes, arts activities, sports and other recreation. The city is offering a strong incentive to base programs in public schools: free rent, food, security, and custodial services.
This model looks very much like programs already being operated by some of the members of the After School Corporation, an umbrella organization which distributes a blend of public and private funds to 232 service programs. According to corporation spokesman John Albert, this is not a coincidence; the city's shift in emphasis "reflects the work we and other innovators have been doing for the last seven or eight years."
Programs in the corporation’s network are all located in public schools, but operated by community based organizations. The corporation provides limited financial support, at present covering about 60 percent of the cost of a typical program. Groups in the network tend to be large and sophisticated enough to raise private and other public funds. The After School Corporation’s programs are not unionized, and relatively few staff have early childhood education credentials. The corporation’s contribution to the cost of an average student’s care is about $1,500; additional funding varies widely among individual programs.
Undercutting Existing Programs
“We see this philosophical trend of pushing programs into the schools and we’re really concerned about losing flexibility,” says Susan Stammler of United Neighborhood Houses. “We can’t have a McDonald’s model, one size fits all. Some communities might have settlement houses with community centers that have dance studios, computer rooms, and other resources.”
Currently, the richest programs are those operated under contracts with the Administration for Children’s Services. A high percentage of staff members are certified Early Childhood Education teachers. Employees are unionized, and just signed a new contract with the city giving them a 12 percent raise. Programs often have cooks to prepare daily snacks, so they are not limited to foods that don’t require preparation, and many are open year-round.
According to Andrea Anthony, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York (where I work as a consultant), member agencies now receive between $5,000 and $6,000 per after-school enrollee. Under the new system, the most a center could be paid for a year-round program would be $2,800 per enrollee.
“They want to replicate what existing programs do, but they don’t want to pay for it,” Anthony says. “We’re encouraging them to either increase the rates or encourage more parents to apply for vouchers.” Parents whose children are enrolled in a program that is no longer available are entitled to an after-school care voucher worth up to $5,800 per year for each child.
About 168 child care centers serve both pre-school children (who are not affected by the change) and school-age children. If these centers don’t survive the transition, their pre-school care slots will also be lost. Pre-school care is even more critically needed than school-age care, especially by low-income working families.
The timing of the proposal process is seen as another cause for concern by Nancy Wackstein of United Neighborhood Houses. At a City Council hearing she testified, “We are greatly concerned that the notification of awards, due in July 2005, will be too late for parents to make informed decisions about their child care and after-school arrangements.”
The demand for after-school care may soon rise sharply. Congressional Republicans are calling for a major increase in the number of hours that parents are required to work in order to receive welfare benefits.
With so much riding on the fragile network of after-school programs, the city needs to expand its capacity, both in the number of children served and in the quality of care.
“The best I can hope for is that parents unite and demand access to the same number of slots they have now," Andrea Anthony says, "and that the rate per child is enough to pay for qualified staff.”
For More Information
Linda Ostreicher, a former budget analyst for the New York City Council, is a freelance writer and consultant to nonprofits, including the Day Care Council and others with after-school programs.