Early Education

OPINION: Is home-based public school the next big thing for 3-year-olds?

Benefits for families in New York City's 3-K plan, despite potential hurdles

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The living room may not have been what New York City’s mayor had in mind a year ago when he ran for re-election on the ambitious promise of free preschool for all of the city’s 3-year-olds.

That door is now open.

New York City recently introduced a plan that would bring 3-K into home-based childcare. It’s a move that other cities and districts are likely to watch closely. The school district is the nation’s largest. There is no playbook for how to effectively include home-based childcare in public preschool, and most programs have relied on schools and centers. (Home-based childcare is also known as family childcare or group family daycare.)

In a recent report, the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School explored the opportunities and challenges that home-based childcare presents for the city’s evolving 3-K program. The report identifies goals that a public preschool program might set in a home-based environment. Based on conversations with more than 20 stakeholders and education experts in New York City, the report also looks to other cities and states for lessons.

Related: Quality of pre-K varies in New York, data shows

Adding a critical mass of family daycares to this 3-K mix will allow the city to more easily serve 3-year-olds in neighborhoods where space in schools and childcare centers is tight — and where home-based childcare already accounts for the bulk of offerings.

These programs will also give families the option of small, homey settings for very young children. And if the city finds ways to maintain 3-K family childcare as mixed-age settings, toddlers in home-based childcare will have the option of staying put for 3-K, allowing for more consistent caregiving and for siblings of different ages to stay together.

There are ways this could go wrong. Working in the more loosely regulated, varied and geographically scattered world of home care is a departure from the education department’s current pre-K portfolio of schools and childcare centers.

Unlike its massive, high-speed launch of universal pre-K for 4-year-olds, the city has been introducing 3-K gradually, adding a few community school districts each year, focusing first on those with high concentrations of poverty. The first programs have been in schools and childcare centers.

Related: Universal preschool is most cost-effective, study finds

If family daycares or the network organizations that the city’s education department plans to support them are not themselves adequately supported and compensated, or if standards for them are set too low, these programs could provide sub-standard services to the low-income children that the 3-K initiative is particularly keen to benefit. It could also mean that children in under-resourced neighborhoods are taught by the least-qualified teachers.

The city’s delicate ecosystem of childcare may also suffer — especially on the limited, precious stock of infant care slots. Los Angeles offers a cautionary tale in this regard; it witnessed a loss of infant care when it began using family childcare for its targeted public pre-K program.

The challenge is to present a vision for what 3-K in family daycare looks like that is inclusive of a significant number of home providers, but also holds them to high standards and offers ample supports. To do this, it will need to make careful decisions about what is reasonable to ask of teachers in the family daycares, and how to help them succeed. It must grapple with philosophical issues, including how much to honor the approaches that home-based caregivers have developed over years, sometimes decades, of practice, and where the city can advance its own vision of early education.

Through it all, the city must keep careful watch on the larger system of childcare on which working families depend.

In a white paper last month, the city’s education department committed to maintaining the city’s capacity of subsidized infant and toddler care. Nevertheless, a potential loss of infant and toddler slots in family childcare resulting from expanding 3-K remains a real concern.

Taking care of babies in family childcare settings costs more than taking care of older kids because of more intensive staffing requirements. As a result, most small providers who take in babies serve mixed age groups to make the staffing requirements work. With the advent of free 3-K programs, these family childcare providers might lose 3-year-olds and either go out of business or begin providing unregulated care.

Allowing them to participate in 3-K, on the other hand, could go a long way toward helping keep them viable, and also prevent a loss of infant and toddler seats.

At the same time, creating a mixed-aged 3-K model specifically for family daycare is likely to prove challenging. 3-K has early education objectives that in schools and childcare centers are assumed to be carried out by certified teachers. Teaching requirements for family childcare providers have not yet been specified.

Achieving high-quality early education across all family childcare settings will require paying subsidized providers more and investing in program improvements. Providers should be able to receive higher rates as they meet quality benchmarks and attain credentials. Many states already provide this kind of tiered payment for subsidized family childcare providers. The system encourages them to pursue professional development and program improvement. New York State should start doing that too.

Family childcare has long been the most common form of childcare for New York City’s very youngest and poorest children, and the city is wise to be making it an important part of its early education strategy. If Mayor Bill de Blasio can, as promised, protect the precious childcare slots that these programs offer while also infusing them with new funding and resources, it will be a huge win for the city. It could also serve as a model for the country.

This story about early childhood education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

Kendra Hurley is senior editor at The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

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Kendra Hurley

Kendra Hurley is senior editor at The New School’s Applied Policy Research Institute. See Archive

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