New York

Michael Bloomberg's Budget Proposal Elicits Protest From Campaign For Children

A coalition of more than 150 New York organizations, ranging from the Police Athletic League to the Children's Aid Society, have signed a letter urging Mayor Michael Bloomberg to restore $170 million for children's services to his proposed budget.

The coalition, called the Campaign for Children, is asking the mayor to make sure that his budget includes funding for some 47,000 child care and after-school slots currently bound for the trash bin. The letter notes that funding for child care and after-school programs has declined each year since 2009. As a result, the city's subsidized child care and after-school systems serve 43,000 fewer children than they did five years ago.

If the proposed cuts stand, the letter warns, an additional 47,000 children will miss out on those programs. "This would mean that in five short years, more than 90,000 children will have been left without care," the letter continues.

The coalition plans to send the letter on Thursday. Gregory Bender, a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses NY and a spokesperson for the coalition, said, "This massive display of support is a message loud and clear from New York City to Mayor Bloomberg: 'You must restore funding for child care and after-school programs that children and working families depend on.'"

Samantha Levine, deputy press secretary for the mayor's office, pointed out that "economic realities have required difficult funding decisions." She also discussed the potential benefits of Early Learn NYC, an administration effort to raise the standards of publicly funded child care. Last year, the administration asked child care providers to submit proposals for programs specifically aimed at preparing children for school success. Those programs should roll out in the fall, and the administration argues that they'll provide better services than the old system. But they'll also cost more, which means that fewer children will have access to them.

Child care is a hot topic in education circles these days, largely thanks to the convergence of two phenomena that might at first seem unrelated: rising poverty and revolutionary brain science. In the last decade, as the ranks of American children living below the poverty line have swelled, researchers who study kids have turned up some troubling findings. They've learned that the emotional stress associated with poverty can inflict serious, lasting damage on the developing brain.

But they've also found that the right kind of child care can shield the brain against those effects. And while experts say that the first few years of a child's life are especially important in shaping the architecture of the brain and paving a child's path to success, research also attests to the importance of after-school programs for older children.

Since the cuts would primarily affect low-income parents, "they'll really have to make some tough choices," said Stephanie Gendell, the associate executive director of policy and public affairs for the Citizens' Committee for Children of New York, one of the organizations that has signed the letter. "Some parents may have to not continue working because they'll need a safe place for their child to be. Others may have to face the tenuous choice of finding some form of care that might not be as safe because it isn't regulated by the city."

The Maxwells are among those parents. Nancy Maxwell, a mother of two who spoke at a press conference for the coalition in early March, works as a tollbooth operator on the New York State Thruway. Her husband drives a train for the Metropolitan Transit Authority, and together they bring home $60,000 a year, which is not enough to afford private child care, she said. So if her kids lose their after-school slots, she'll have to quit her job.

Of course, if that happens, she could apply for public assistance. As she sees it, the system is set up to encourage people like her to "stay home and live off the government."

The debate over child care and after-school funding isn't confined to New York. In North Carolina, home to what was long considered one of the best state-funded pre-kindergarten programs in the country, the Democratic governor is facing off against a Republican-dominated legislature in a bitter fight over funding for early-childhood programs.

Meanwhile, in the national arena, the Republican-led House of Representatives is getting ready to approve Rep. Paul Ryan's proposed 2013 budget, which would slash funding for Head Start, a federally funded early-childhood education program for low-income families.

New York City, like North Carolina, once garnered praise from children's advocates for its ambitious programs. In 2005, Bloomberg started the Out-of-School Time program, the largest after-school system in the country.

Last month, in a speech before the state legislature, Bloomberg said, "What happens after the final school bell of the day rings is as important to students as what goes on in the classrooms." Those who oppose his cuts would certainly agree.

Yet after peaking at $120 million in 2009, funding for the program plunged to $90 million, and the number of available slots dropped from 85,000 to 52,000. To quote a brief released by the campaign in early March, the possible loss of an additional 25,000 openings means that "New York City's children and working families face the dismantling of a once strong and vibrant system."

So how should the administration pay for the kids who'd lose their slots? "There should be a way," said Gendell, noting that the mayor managed to find an extra $2 billion in the budget last year after the state slashed funds for city schools. "We are hoping something similar would happen here."

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