As the chances dwindle for significant federal action on early care and education, families and providers are turning back to leaders in city and state governments to address the crisis that the lack of care has created. Inevitably, this leads back to an old question: Can local government scale quickly to deliver high-quality, accessible care?

The answer is yes. Cities and states around the country—from big cities to small towns, with Republican and Democratic administrations—have demonstrated this time and again when leaders have made the resources available to expand. As the leader of the effort to implement one of the largest and fastest expansions of preschool in the country—the Pre-K for All initiative in New York City—I can share four major lessons we learned as we wrestled with how to deliver for children and families.

1. First, don’t be afraid to go fast. We early childhood advocates have a bad habit of promising big change and then laying out a 10-year plan to get there—after a two-year planning period. To a voter, this is dangerously close to doing nothing. Voters need to see tangible change quickly, or they lose confidence and attention, and the funding for the effort can be cut without a whisper at the first crisis or change in leadership.

New York City set a two-year timeframe to create a high-quality preschool seat for the family of every 4-year-old that wanted one. Mayor Bill de Blasio ran on this promise and took office in January 2014. By September 2015, we had accomplished that goal—expanding from 20,000 full-day seats to 70,000. Many experts and advocates counseled against such a rapid timeline, but the “go-slow” approach failed in New York before. Twenty years after passage of a state law to fund universal pre-K, fewer than one-third of preschool-age children in New York City were being served.

Some warned that a rapid implementation would mean low quality, but that has it exactly backward: Success in rapid implementation gave decisionmakers the confidence to invest in the systems that build quality and, as a result, the city saw quality improve even as we expanded.

2. Second, look and listen to the people who will make the expansion happen. In New York City, we had an experienced, expert group of child care and Head Start providers, principals, educators, and staff that had been providing excellent care for our city’s children for years. By first expanding in partnership with these groups—by converting half-day seats to full-day seats and giving groups the resources and assistance they needed to plan expansion in their communities—we were able to go much faster than we would have if we had planned it all centrally.

This also means doing something New York City did not do quickly enough—ensuring that all the teachers and staff who will make the expansion happen are compensated fairly. Ultimately, we made sure that qualified staff and teachers in our community-based organizations were paid comparably to their counterparts in district schools, but our expansion would have been even more successful if we had done that earlier. Fair compensation is an essential ingredient to high-quality programs and should be part of any plan to expand pre-K services.

3. Third, mount a serious effort to recruit families. The most important decision in an expansion is the one over which program leaders have the least control: the decision a family makes to enroll a child. Unless we work hard to influence those decisions, we may leave preschool seats sitting empty, giving credence to the argument that expansion was too fast. We know the need for early care and education exists and it is critical, but we need to convince families to participate. Think about it like an election: early care and education wins if 95% or more of your seats are filled on the first day. An enrollment outreach operation is also essential to meeting goals of addressing racial and economic inequality by ensuring that the program serves the most marginalized, underserved families.

In New York City, we hired a team of 50 experienced organizers from throughout the city, who knew its neighborhoods and spoke its major languages, to mount a campaign to reach every family with a 4-year-old in the city and try to convince them to enroll in the pre-K program. We hired a campaign professional to run the outreach effort and invested in the tools we needed—from data systems to ads in bus shelters to phone banks—to accomplish the goal. With this team and system in place, we were able to fill almost all our seats each fall, even while we added tens of thousands of new ones.

4. Finally, focus on equity. Just because a program is accessible to all families does not mean it has to provide exactly the same service to everyone. In New York, we provide additional support to children with disabilities, children who speak a language other than English at home and, since the onset of the pandemic, programs serving families living in the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19. But rather than sorting families during the application process, we allow families to enroll in the programs they want and ensure the services are there when they get there.

While every city and state is different, and New York City had a unique set of resources, we believe our experience shows some of what is possible for other cities and states if they commit the resources to tackle the early care and education crisis. Hopefully, more of those that try will come together to share what they have learned and make it easier for others to follow.

Ultimately, we do need federal support to tackle this national problem. But until that comes, cities and states can lead the way by creating systems and structures that work, address longstanding inequities, and provide tangible results for our children and families.

Josh Wallack is former deputy chancellor for early childhood education and student enrollment at the New York City Department of Education.