New York

Bloomberg Budget Brawl: Children's Advocates Scramble To Save New York's State-Of-The-Art After-School System On Eve Of Massive Cuts

A coalition of more than 150 New York City groups, including the Children's Aid Society and the Police Athletic League, is making a last-ditch effort to save thousands of publicly funded child-care and after-school slots in the city.

The effort began more than two months ago, when Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a budget proposal that cut $170 million for children's services.

Last week, the administration revealed that it plans to fund 224 after-school programs through 2013, meaning that 172 programs serving 25,000 children may soon be on their own. The administration has yet to make an announcement about the specific plans for early child-care programs, but advocates expect to lose around 15,900 slots for preschoolers.

The coalition, called the Campaign for Children, tried to convince the mayor to change his mind -– or to "come to his senses," as more than one critic has put it.

Members wrote letters, reached out to reporters, and rallied on the steps of City Hall. They gained support from a fairly wide array of influential figures, including Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council and a consistent ally of the mayor's, who called the cuts "unacceptable."

It didn't work. The mayor is set to release his executive budget Thursday, and the city's child-care advocates said they haven't heard any rumblings indicating a last-minute restoration of funds. "We're very concerned, and frankly outraged," said Katherine Eckstein, the director of public policy for the Children's Aid Society. "It's exactly the opposite of the direction the city should be going in."

If the mayor sticks to his decision, there will still be opportunities for child-care programs to gain back the lost funding. After the mayor releases his executive budget, the city council will have until the end of June to settle on next year's spending decisions. Last month, three caucuses within the city council -– those representing progressives, women, and people of color -- wrote letters to the mayor strenuously objecting to the cuts.

But advocates said they're focused on trying to keep things from getting to that point. "We're working very hard to restore this money," said Eckstein.

Samantha Levine, a spokesperson for the mayor, didn't respond to a request for comment Wednesday, but in March she explained that "economic realities have required difficult funding decisions."

Eckstein isn't convinced. "I don't have access to the city's ledger but what I do know is that we're not in the kind of dire economic situation that we were in the past couple years and that we all have to identify priorities and then fund those priorities," she said. "And I don't know what is more important than this."

There's a case to be made that child-care and after-school programs are important investments, and not just for children. The Nobel-prize winning economic James Heckman found that every dollar invested in the early child-development program Head Start pays dividends of between $7 and $9 as the program's alumni enter the work force and start contributing to the economy.

An evaluation of New York's after-school system in 2009 by the group Policy Studies Associates found that more than 70 percent of parents said the program made it easier to keep their jobs, and that they worked more hours because their children were in the program. Another study found that decreased worker productivity stemming from after-school issues cost businesses as much as $300 billion as a year.

Advocates also point out that after-school and child-care programs often employ low-income people who spend money in their neighborhoods, helping small businesses.

But for those who want to save these programs, the most important beneficiaries are the students. In recent years, several studies found that students enrolled in after-school programs have better school-attendance records, better test scores and grades, and are better behaved, healthier and less likely to use drugs and commit crimes than their peers.

Bloomberg, who has championed the research and those programs, established the city's current after-school system in 2005. At the time, it was the largest after-school program in the country, and according to many of the experts now fighting his cuts, the best.

Under previous administrations, the system offered little more than babysitting; participants in the 80s and 90s aren't likely to look back at those unstructured afternoons of tag and apple juice as formative experiences.

But in Bloomberg's revamped system, students get homework help and instruction from qualified teachers in various academic and extracurricular subjects. "Every day across the city there are thousands of children engaging in literacy-based projects, art, sports and fitness, a whole range of activities," said Rob Abbott, the director of a Cypress Hill after-school program fated to possibly lose its city funding.

"We have a band," he went on. "They're going to lose that."

The Children's Aid Society, an organization that dates back to the mid-19th century, has eight after-school programs on the chopping block. Eckstein said she did not know if the agency would look for other sources of funding for those programs.

Even before the mayor proposed this round of cuts, funding for the city's after-school system was declining. Between 2009 and 2012, the number of available slots dropped from 85,000 to 52,000. And the demand for those openings has been fierce.

Carina Sanz, a 24-year-old Kmart worker who is raising a 7-year-old daughter and 8-year-old nephew with her sister, said the line to enroll kids at one of the after-school programs in Cypress Hills was so long it nearly erupted into a brawl.

"That sounds bad when you listen to it," she said, "but imagine how bad things must be for people to do that."

Sanz said her daughter and nephew get help with their homework and participate in music and dance classes. "My nephew thinks he's a mini-dancer now," she said. "Which is awesome."

What's not awesome for Sanz's nephew is that the program may not be around next year. Neither Sanz nor anyone else interviewed for this story knew why the administration targeted the 172 programs, but Sanz said that if the cuts go through she'll probably end up costing the city just as much in the long run.

"I probably wouldn't be able to work all the hours I work now," she explained. To make up for the lost wages she'd apply for food stamps.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story misstated the number of child-care programs that advocates expect to lose and the number of after-school programs that have been lost.

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