Over the past decade, New York City rapidly expanded its publicly funded early care and education system, moving from a small, targeted program to one that serves nearly 100,000 children from birth to age five. There are several factors that made this expansion possible, some of which are outlined in this Children’s Funding Project blog post.

New York City utilized multiple different funding streams to successfully grow its services. As detailed in this Children’s Funding Project fact sheet, blending and braiding are common strategies that states and localities, like New York City, use when building their early care and education programs. We took many lessons from our experience that may benefit localities as they consider their next steps.

Define clear policy goals for your integrated funding approach. New York City has restructured its early childhood systems several times. In 2012, New York City created a new program called EarlyLearn, which blended Head Start and Child Care and Development Block Grant funds along with some city tax revenue, to create one early care and education program for income-eligible infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Then in 2014, the city launched universal pre-K, a program designed to bring free, full-day, high-quality pre-K to every 4-year-old. This program was managed by the New York City Department of Education, whereas EarlyLearn was managed by the city’s social services agency, the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS). The existence of two parallel early care and education programs expanded access, but created challenges for families, providers, and administrators.

In 2017, the city announced that EarlyLearn programs would shift to management by the department of education as part of an effort to create a unified birth-to-five education system. This shift coincided with the launch of the city’s universal preschool program for 3-year-olds, 3-K for All. Our goals in making this shift were to simplify access for families, streamline processes for providers, and maximize the city’s early childhood investments by housing resources, support, and staff with relevant expertise in one agency. We also hoped to foster greater socioeconomic and racial integration in our programs, recognizing the benefit that would bring to all children. We used these goals to anchor all our subsequent policy decisions.

We completed the EarlyLearn transfer in 2019 and welcomed over 100 new colleagues to the team. We planned to run the 3-K, pre-K, and EarlyLearn programs essentially side by side until we could finalize a new procurement. Then COVID-19 happened, which threw a wrench in our plans and our timeline. But in 2021, the education department initiated new early care and education contracts that brought all services together and aimed to address some of the challenges of the prior structure.

Consider the new interagency structures that might be needed. To create an integrated system, we brought together federal funding from Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, New York state pre-K funding, and general funds from the city budget. Because ACS was the city’s designated social services district, state regulation did not allow for Child Care and Development Block Grant funds to flow directly to the education department. Instead, ACS contracted with the education department to administer child care services, transferred a portion of the block grant funding, and maintained strict oversight of agency activity. The state’s Office of Children and Family Services signed off on all aspects of this oversight structure and checked in regularly. To leverage Head Start funding, the education department had to apply and become a federal grantee on behalf of the city.

The arrangement we landed on for Child Care and Development Block Grant funding created an inherently strange dynamic, placing one city agency in an oversight role for another. It took time to figure out how to make this oversight relationship work. We were most successful when the two leadership teams met regularly and we had formal structures, including neutral facilitators, to help work through staff-level issues.

Maximize your most flexible funding streams. For New York City, this was our city tax revenue and our state pre-K funding. From the start, every early childhood program that served 4-year-olds was required to meet state pre-K standards. Our enrollment exceeded the amount of state pre-K funding we could access annually. This gave us the flexibility to determine which kids we could claim against the state grant based on our other funding sources and all but guaranteed we could draw down the maximum state pre-K revenue each year.

Take on as much burden centrally as possible. Program providers did not need to engage in complicated cost allocations across public funding streams, even if they received multiple types of funding from the education department. Once their operating budget was approved for the year, the providers simply invoiced for costs and received funds based on their spending. On the back end, the education department’s budget team worked to maximize claimable revenue and allocate costs across contracts globally. This gave the operations team more flexibility and took the administrative burden off the providers, most of whom did not have a designated finance staff. However, this decision required a robust central staff to manage many manual processes.

Limit distinctions between program types for the front-end user. It was important to us that all 4-year-olds, and later all 3-year-olds, received the same core offering: free, high-quality care and education for 6 hours and 20 minutes, the length of a school day. The funding implication was that child care dollars, which require programs to charge families a sliding scale fee for participation, could only be used for hours outside of the core day, so any additional hours and summer months. We structured the program budget so that we could fund the core day for all children with the state pre-K grant (for 4-year-olds) and city tax revenue (for 3- and 4-year-olds). This way we could honor the promise that school-day services would be free for all. During the additional hours, which were funded by child care dollars, families utilizing services paid a nominal fee.

Minimize the information that families are required to provide to participate. To enroll in a Pre-K for All program, families only had to provide proof of residency and their child’s birth date. No further questions asked. This helped get families in the door quickly. On the backend, however, we gathered data to maximize our funding. For example, the education department and ACS worked together annually on a data-matching process to identify child-welfare involved families. This allowed the city to tap a funding source specifically earmarked for child care for this population. The family and program were essentially uninvolved in this process and children were not treated any differently in practice.

Though we had small successes like this, we encountered other challenges. Federal regulations require families to demonstrate eligibility before receiving services funded with Child Care and Development Block Grant or Head Start funds. We continued to see enrollment lag for these slots. Families chose to enroll in one of the city’s universal pre-K slots instead because it was simpler and did not require sharing detailed personal documents and information. In an ideal world, we would have found a way to identify families eligible for Child Care and Development Block Grant funded programs using data the city already had or would have implemented a process that worked retroactively once a child enrolled. These are policy solutions that would require the city, state, and federal government to innovate together.

Recognize and honor Head Start as a different program offering. Head Start has strong brand recognition and a deep history in many communities. The wraparound, two-generation model is rooted in research about what children and their families need to succeed. However, the standards and requirements are steep: For any child funded by even a dollar of Head Start, the program must meet all 1300+ standards set by the federal government. Additionally, the eligibility criteria are stringent. The income threshold is set nationally and in a place like New York City, only the most economically vulnerable children qualify.

In 2021, the education department launched new early care and education contracts that unbraided Head Start and federal child care funds. Instead, the city braided Head Start and child care funds separately with more flexible funds, including state pre-K dollars and city tax revenue. Programs then applied to offer the specific service models that met their community’s needs. Our decision to separate federal child care and Head Start funds allowed providers offering Head Start services to focus on that model and allowed the education department to richly fund these programs to provide quality Head Start programming. This also simplified eligibility criteria by allowing us to eliminate “dual eligibility” seats that required families to demonstrate eligibility for both funding streams. We believed this would make it easier to recruit the most vulnerable families into Head Start programs. Fencing off these funds also meant our other contracted programs did not need to meet the full cadre of Head Start standards. Other programs did not have the same rich funding model as Head Start and it would have felt like an unfunded mandate to impose the same requirements upon them. However, in 2019 we started to bring some Head Start practices to all programs and hope the city will continue that work.

Emmy Liss is a senior advisor for early care and education for Children’s Funding Project. She worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2015 to 2022 and served as the chief operating officer for the department’s Division of Early Childhood Education.