To hear Mayor Bill de Blasio tell it, New York City’s monumental effort to make free pre-K universal has been nothing but a success: In two short years, almost 70,000 4-year-olds have enrolled in classrooms that earn high marks for quality and near uniform praise from experts and parents.  

But on the ground, the independent preschool operators the city has relied on to make Pre-K for All a reality tell a starkly different story. They say the mayor’s ambitious early childhood plans have pushed them to the brink. Now they are mounting a fight for what they say is their survival.

The tension is rising just as de Blasio has set his sights on the White House, touting his pre-K efforts as a central selling point for a potential campaign. The need for more preschool has already proved a popular talking point as he travels the country to meet voters, and de Blasio has doubled down on his signature achievement by attempting to expand free preschool to all 3-year-olds, too. Closer to home, however, providers have a tough message for the mayor.

“We tell our children: ‘Clean up your mess before you move on to something else.’ This mayor needs to do that, too,” said Alice Mulligan, the director of a private preschool in Brooklyn. “He cannot tout the success of this program until he fixes it.”

Their alarm is notable because the city depends on a mix of public schools and privately run centers to create enough seats to enroll all 4-year-olds in pre-K. A majority of children in the program — 60%— attend a community center.

At the core of the dispute is a city plan to overhaul how pre-K and childcare programs are overseen. The changes include fundamental shifts in how classrooms are funded, creating heightened anxiety around a system that many already decried as deeply flawed.

A spokesman for City Hall said the changes are necessary to build “a strong birth-to-five system” within the Department of Education, or DOE.

“The DOE held over 100 meetings and solicited feedback for over a year,” Raul Contreras wrote in an email. “We’ll continue to engage providers and advocates, and move towards solutions that work for everyone.”

But providers who rely on city contracts for funding say the reforms — which shift oversight of publicly supported preschool and childcare programs to the education department — could lead to their financial ruin.

Among the most pressing issues is that teacher salaries significantly lag behind those of public school pre-K teachers. The disparity nearly sparked a strike this month until a last-minute agreement was struck to enter into negotiations. Providers are also concerned about a new system for calculating their payments from the city.

“It’s a whole new world,” said Andrea Anthony, who heads the Day Care Council, which represents nonprofit providers. “It’s scary.”

Operators are so worried, a group of about 70 recently asked the mayor in an open letter for a complete do-over of the city’s plans, which take effect in July. In another sign of the growing concern, dozens of early childhood educators have recently formed a new advocacy group called CBOs for Equity, which is also pushing for changes.

When de Blasio announced plans in 2017 to revamp New York City’s early education system, the goal was to streamline a patchy network of care and put the education department in charge of learning from cradle to college. Previously, programs for low-income families, such as federal Head Start classes, were overseen by the Administration for Children’s Services.

Some providers were hopeful about the transition, only to be dismayed in March when the city took the first major step towards change by releasing a new round of contracts for providers to bid on in order to continue receiving public money.

One main concern with the contracts is a new funding system based on monthly student enrollment, which providers say can fluctuate dramatically while their fixed costs remain the same.

Based on current enrollment trends, the change means very few centers would receive their full budget, according to figures from the Day Care Council of New York. A group of more than 50 operators recently warned the city that they were already struggling to fill seats after the education department opened its own centers in their neighborhoods.

The enrollment concerns only add to worries that per-student funding for community programs is already low compared with public schools. And the city’s payments to centers will stay fixed over the course of the new eight-year contracts, with no increases built in for cost of living or other factors.

“We were very hopeful that with this transition of the whole system to the DOE that the two tier system that the city has had would go away,” said Jane Golden, chief program officer of Sheltering Arms, a nonprofit that provides pre-K to 1,500 children across the city. “So when the [new contracts] came out, I think we’re all really disappointed and frankly angry.”

The education department counters that the funding model will provide a new safety net by guaranteeing a portion of operators’ budgets, and noted that centers will benefit from a city team that focuses on recruiting families.

But the most glaring problem, operators say, is teacher pay. Teachers in community organizations and public schools are represented by different unions, and those in privately run centers earn significantly less than their public school counterparts despite meeting the same qualifications. Teachers in community organizations have a starting salary of about $42,000, compared with $59,000 in public schools. 

Directors say they constantly lose teachers seeking out higher pay, making it hard to stay open and causing a churn in staff that can have a negative impact on classrooms.

“As soon as a slot opens up, they run to the DOE. We’re providing them with excellently trained teachers and draining our nonprofits,” said Alan van Capelle, president of Educational Alliance, a major pre-K provider. “It’s exhausting. We’re tired.”  

After the new contracts were released without additional funding to address the pay disparity, teachers represented by District Council 1707 voted to strike. For now, the union has pulled back on that threat, after the city agreed to meet providers and teachers at the bargaining table.

Marcia Black, who teaches pre-K in a community center in the Bronx, was ready to join the walkout. It took her almost 10 years, relying on an informal lending network among friends, to finally earn the master’s degree she needs to lead her own classroom. Now she earns about $50,000 while working towards her permanent certification, which would earn her tens of thousands of dollars more in a public school classroom.

“The job itself may be rewarding but the financial part of it is just not there,” Black said. “You work so hard, you go to school, and for what?”

City officials say some progress has been made on the salary front. The city has offered retention bonuses and boosted pay when universal pre-K first kicked off — although a spokeswoman for the city recently acknowledged more should be done.

And while many pre-K centers have unionized staff and belong to organized advocacy organizations, plenty of others are politically isolated because they are independently operated and their staff don’t belong to unions. That’s why Mulligan, the head of Our Savior’s Lutheran, launched CBOs for Equity: to find greater strength in numbers by having centers like hers join forces.

“If the coalition can really take shape to be an active voice, it can really make change,” said Maria Nogueira, who runs Treasure Island pre-K center in Brooklyn. “The mayor needs to hear not one voice, not five voices. He really needs to hear all.”

Whether the rising discontent among operators translates to any real change in the city’s programs remains unclear.  Some have called for the city to focus on increasing spending to stabilize the system, rather than pouring money into efforts to expand pre-K to 3-year-olds. Though providers laud the goal of helping more New York City children start off school on solid footing, some wonder whether the push for 3-K for All will be feasible given the current challenges.

“I can’t tell you what the mayor is going to do… but there’s going to come a day that we’re going to stop taking these contracts,” warned van Capelle. “The city has to be a partner with us, and they can’t take us for granted.”