Tag Archives: new york city

New York City is Having Trouble Giving Away Free Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) Slots—And an Early Head Start (EHS) Note

We’ve written many City of New York Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) proposals—as well as various Head Start, Early Head Start and other early childhood education proposals—so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s recent NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York City is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. They City and its legion of grantees have to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the free slots.* The situation is so extreme that we have to use italics.

Since it costs NYC taxpayers about $8,000/slot to provide UPK and the parents pay nothing, it may seem odd that parents aren’t lining up to get valuable free stuff. Usually it’s easy for providers to recruit parents for early childhood education programs that are paid via OPM (“Other Peoples’s Money“). Since Mayor de Blasio is a textbook modern progressive, it is probably inconceivable to him that low-income parents wouldn’t see the inherent wisdom in sending their kids off to UPK. He says:

“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”

Right. If this is true, why the need for enrollment specialists?** The answer is complex but essentially comes down to the reality that not all parents, low-income or otherwise, want their kids in a public program. Reasons are varied but include general disinterest of parents in their kids’s lives, which is demonstrated by the fairly low enrollment rates in many states in the nominally priced Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Some parents, particularly single moms, may have a boyfriend who is dealing or otherwise up to no good and doesn’t want to raise the attention of city officials if little Johnny brings a bag of meth to preschool or shows up with bruises.

The mom herself may be alcohol or drug addled. Many parents also have informal childcare support provided by older siblings, extended family, or neighbors, who are easier to access than getting the kid dressed and accompanied to formal, institutionalized preschool (“It takes a village to raise a child”). Some parents also realize there actually isn’t much education going on in UPK and similar classrooms, as demonstrated by relatively weak outcomes evaluations of the grandaddy of such efforts, Head Start, which we’ve discussed before.

There may be religious issues, as many UPK providers are run by faith-based organizations. If you’re a Catholic immigrant from Guatemala, you may not be all that enthusiastic about sending your kid to a UPK program run by an ultra Orthodox Jewish school (or vice-versa; in the proposal world diversity and ethnic harmony are universal, but the real world is often more complex). It’s an open and unsurprising secret that many faith-based early childhood education providers prefer kids of their own religion. Like many aspects of human service delivery, this is never stated in a proposal.

There is another interesting moment in Taylor’s story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way, and particularly by voters. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program—see comment about Head Start, above. Smart applicants know this and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.

One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data that did not conform to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. DOL doesn’t want to know the truth, assuming there is such a thing in this circumstance; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance. When we wrote their next YouthBuild proposal, we obfuscated the outcome with through the magic of grant writing. The agency was funded.

In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand ready, as always, to write early childhood education proposals, keeping the story intact. If someone is paying you to tell them what they want to hear, you should be prepared to tell them what they want to hear.


* In any capitated service program like UPK, the participants are usually referred to in proposalese as occupying “slots,” however impersonal this sounds. A childcare center that serves 100 kids is referred to as having “100 slots.”

** Another quote from the NYT article:

“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”

Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones, the person quoted in the story, probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1930s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.

My first bidders conference, or, how I learned what I already knew

In January I went to and got kicked out of my first bidders conference. For those of you not familiar with the practice, bidders conferences are largely pointless schmooz-fests for potential grant applicants. Aside from being there to show the flag to program officers and to preen in front of potential competitors, bidders conferences are useless because almost every RFP will issue a disclaimer like this one:

if the NYCDOE issues an addendum with a digest of the inquiries made and answers given at the pre-proposal conference, proposers shall rely on the information contained in such addendum rather than those given orally at the conference.

This language kills accountability and applicants can’t rely on anything that’s said at a bidders conference. They can only rely on the words in the RFP. As a result, most bidders conferences will at best confuse potential applicants. Anyone who sees something amiss in an RFP would be better served to seek an amendment rather than pester the low-level bureaucrats at a bidders conference. Bidders conferences are great for grant writing consultants, however, because they gather a lot of potential clients in one small space.

Back to my story about being ejected. I arrived at the New York City Department of Education’s (NYC DOE) Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) bidders conference a few minutes early, with marketing fliers in one hand and business cards in the other. Almost no one else was there, so I chatted with the staffers hanging out. There were at least four and maybe half a dozen DOE staff there. I had no idea what they were doing, other than make-work.

People slowly started showing up. A staffer said I could leave flyers next the sign-in table. I said hi and chatted with whoever was wandering by until an older DOE staffer showed up, grabbed the flyers, and brought them over to the recycling bin. I asked her not to chuck them—we put time and energy to getting them made! She gave them back and told me to leave.

As usual I played jailhouse lawyer—public facility, First Amendment, etc.—but she wasn’t having any of it and found a fat security rent-a-cop guy (the conference was being held in downtown Brooklyn at a small college auditorium) who had no doubt kicked many people out of many places.

I left, though I suspect that there’s a real First Amendment case to be made: I wasn’t interfering with the proceedings and it’s a public meeting. But my goal was to get nonprofits to hire us to write their UPK proposals, not be an ACLU test case.*

It was January in New York, which meant that nasty weather was a possibility and that day it was indeed raining. Nonetheless the attendees did show up and took my flyers, which, in keeping with our general style, are bright, eye-catching and obnoxious (but very effective).

About 30 to 40 percent of the bidders looked at me like I’d just taken a dump in front of them. Another 20 or so percent were actively excited. The rest seemed confused. By and large, nonprofit personnel don’t want to be seen consorting with grant writers, much as married men don’t want to be seen with ladies of the evening, so they don’t want to smile and say hi. One woman asked where we were three years ago, when she’d first gotten her UPK contract. Grant writing is one of those things, like house cleaning, that people want to pay someone else to do.

Despite the reactions I got in the flesh, I can say that based on the number of calls we got and UPK proposals we wrote, it’s apparent that a lot of people liked us regardless of how they behaved with their peers watching.

I look forward to the next Bidder’s Conference. When I was too young to attend these events, Isaac used to go to them wearing a brightly colored Seliger + Associates T-shirt, emblazoned with our logo, 800 number and slogan, “We know where the money is!”

We did then and still do.


* I am an ACLU member: I may disagree with what you see but will fight for your right to say it.

Fallible FedEx and Federal Deadlines

Some things just can’t happen unless the time is right. When we dreamt up Seliger + Associates about 21 years ago, all grant proposal submittals were paper-based, usually involving an original with wet signatures and multiple copies—sometimes as many as ten, despite the Federal Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. In the early stages of Seliger + Associates, we were based in the Bay Area, most of our clients were in LA, and most of the funders were in LA City and County departments—or Sacramento (CA state grants) and Washington, DC. It would not have been possible for Seliger + Associates to thrive without these three crucial elements: “800” phone service, a fax line and, most importantly, FedEx, or, as it was still known in 1993, “Federal Express.”

By 1993, it was pretty easy to get toll-free service and, at that time, “800” numbers were it (no 866, 888, etc.). The 800 number was essential, as we knew the office would be mobile and an 800 could be piggy-backed or associated with any phone number. Once we had an 800 number, it would follow us wherever we went—and it has, from the Bay Area to Seattle to Tucson and now Santa Monica. I sometimes get phone calls from clients I haven’t spoken to for ten or fifteen years because they remember the 800 number, which has appeared on tens of thousands of marketing flyers, letters, and business cards that lurk in hidden places and offices throughout America.

Fax machines were also ubiquitous by 1993, and they were state-of-the-art for instant document transmission. All we needed was a second phone line and a fax machine to easily send and receive proposal drafts to clients.

FedEx, however, was the real key to business success: it enabled us receive overnight payments (always important to a consultant) and background info from clients. We could overnight finished proposals to funders. The best part of FedEx was that it seemed, at least to us, to be 100% reliable. In fact, I can’t remember a single incidence of FedEx failing to deliver a package, as promised—until last week. [1]

Here is the sad tale of FedEx the fallen . . .

While almost all federal, state and local proposals are now submitted electronically, for some unknown reason the New York City Department of Education apparently thinks it’s time to party like 1999 and required hard copies for the 2014 Universal PreKindergarten (UPK) RFP process. The deadline was last Friday—February 14.

For local government funders, we typically produce hardcopies in LA, rather than our satellite office in New York, and ship them to our client, who then hand-deliver the submission package. This helps maintain our transparency as ghost writers. Being prudent grant writers, we finished the submission package last Monday and took it to the local FedEx office at about 4:45 PM—30 minutes in advance of what we thought was the 5:15 PM deadline for East Coast priority next-day deliver.

FedEx, however, decided at some point during the day to move up the drop off deadline to 4:30 PM without changing the automated telephone recording for this location. We had called earlier in the day (once again being prudent) and heard the recording, which confirmed the erroneous 5:15 PM deadline. When we got to FedEx, a gaggle of incredulous shippers like us were yelling at the hapless counter guy.

Since the RFP deadline was Friday, we thought a Wednesday delivery would be okay—and, of course, there was nothing we could do about it.[2] I called FedEx central anyway and was told the problem was “a snow storm expected in Indianapolis”—the FedEx hub through which the package was being routed.

We returned to the local FedEx office with the package on Tuesday and off it went. Unfortunately by then, the snow storm had actually hit Indianapolis, delaying FedEx plane departures in the middle of the night. The FedEx plane was hours late getting to Newark and by the time the package got to the NYC sort facility, the drivers had already left on their rounds.

I didn’t figure this out until 10:00 AM PST on Wednesday and spent an hour or so working my way up the food chain to a FedEx supervisor, who said, more or less, that I could go piss up a rope because the package wouldn’t be delivered until Thursday. I was indignant, because in days of yore, a FedEx supervisor would have moved heaven and earth to get a package delivered, even if meant having local FedEx managers use their own cars for delivery. The company culture has changed.

The supervisor did, however, say that our client could go to the sort facility and pick up the package. I called the client, who said she would go retrieve it. By the time she got there, FedEx had apparently gotten enough complaining phone calls from angry shippers and sent the late packages out with a wave of unscheduled afternoon trucks.

The package was now on a truck, not at the sort facility, so our client went back to her office, which is in a private school building. By then the blizzard was bearing down on NYC. At 5:00 our client and most other staff left the building. Of course FedEx delivered the package at 5:15 to the security guard, who was the only person left at the school. The package was locked in the school building, which was naturally closed on Thursday, due to the now very real blizzard.

As the Vince, pitchman for Shamwow[3], used to say “are you following me, camera guy?” The package that was supposed to be delivered by FedEx on Tuesday was actually not received by our client until Friday morning, just a few hours ahead of the deadline.

But on Thursday, the NYC DOE issued an amendment extending the deadline until this Tuesday, February 18, because of the blizzard that had been harassing this proposal all last week.

A couple of takeaways from this bizarre story: FedEx has turned into a bureaucracy and is longer as infallible as it once seemed. FedEx employees used to care about their sacred mission, much as Google employees are said to today; now they seem to be punching the clock. Just as we advise our clients to always upload grants.gov submissions at least 48 hours in advance of the deadline to allow for upload issues, give yourself a couple of days of slack for hard copy submissions being sent via FedEx.[4]

Having given this advice, however, it is also not a good idea to submit proposals more than two days in advance. Funders will sometimes issue last minute amendments to RFPs. In the case of the NYC DOE RPF I’ve been discussing, the last minute amendment was a deadline extension, but it could have been some other, crucial change. If you’ve already submitted a proposal—hard copy or digital—early, and a subsequent amendment is issued, then in technical terms, you be screwed. You generally can’t un-submit a proposal.


[1] Oddly enough, Jake just had FedEx miss a delivery as well. He ordered a Tom Bihn Cache, which should have arrived in New York from its manufacturing point outside of Seattle before Jake’s recent trip to Boston. The package didn’t show up, however, and when Jake called FedEx with the tracking number the person who answered said he couldn’t find the package’s location in the system and suggested that Jake file a claim for a lost package.

Jake sent an e-mail to Tom Bihn, figuring that they should take care of it, and eventually the package did show up—just not in time for his trip. Nonetheless, the experience doesn’t inspire confidence in the company, especially since their customer service reps don’t even know what their system messages mean.

[2] We have a Force Majeure— sometimes referred to as an “act of God”—clause in our contracts for just this reason.

[3] My daughter bought Shamwows for me as a gag gift a few years ago, because she knew how much I enjoyed Vince’s infomercials. They turned out to be a very good product. No one, however, has yet bought me a Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman, made famous by Ron Popeil, the original informercial pitchman.

[4] Amazingly, there are still some federal programs, particularly in that bastion of innovation, the Department of Education, requiring hard copy submissions.