For years, the city has touted a universal pre-K program. But for young children with disabilities, it was not a promise kept.

“The previous ideas of universal pre-K and 3-K did not account for children with disabilities. It was just wrong. It was unfair, and it was wrong,” Mayor Eric Adams said at a press conference Tuesday.

A shortage of seats left hundreds of students with disabilities without a spot in a special education classroom that could meet the needs listed on their Individualized Education Program, or IEP, according to annual data from the organization Advocates for Children.

What You Need To Know

  • For years, hundreds of special needs students have been shut out of pre-K and 3-K due to a shortage of seats

  • That's in part because special education pre-K teachers have been paid less than their general education counterparts, or those who work in Department of Education schools

  • Now, the city says they will use contract enhancements to boost special education pre-K teacher pay

  • Mayor Eric Adams pledged to add 800 more seats for pre-K and 3-K special needs students

“At the end of the last school year 800 children were waiting for seats in their legally mandated preschool special education classes,” said Randi Levine, policy director at AFC, at Tuesday’s press conference.

Now, Adams plans to change that, thanks to 800 new seats that he says will be available by spring.

“By this spring, all of our special education students in pre-K and 3-K will have the supports they need to flourish both in the classroom and in life,” Adams said.

One reason for the shortage is that teachers working in schools for children with special needs have long been paid a lower rate than their peers working at other pre-K programs.

“We weren’t paying the same rate for doing a more difficult job. It just was not fair. This wage disparity has been going on for too long and it is stopping with this administration,” Adams said.

Through a contract enhancement, the city will begin paying special education pre-school teachers the same rate as others — increasing their pay to about $68,000 a year, up from between $50,000 and $58,000, officials said.

The contract enhancement — so far in place at 65 programs — will also allow the city to extend the length of the school day to six hours and twenty minutes for about 3,000 children attending those programs. That’s the same length as general education pre-K and 3-k school day.

“Imagine that? Children who needed more were receiving less. That is just dysfunctional at its highest level,” Adams said.

It was one of several implicit criticisms of the prior administration and, though he was not named, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s motto, “Pre-K For All,” was.

“For far too long this term ‘for all’ has been thrown around, but in this sector, for all did not necessarily mean for all,” schools Chancellor David Banks said.

Of the 800 new seats the city is promising, 400 have already been created through the contract enhancements, with promises to create 400 more by the school year's end. Advocates say they’ll be watching.

“We plan to hold the administration accountable for delivering on that promise. The city has a legal obligation and a moral obligation to do so,” Levine said.

City data from last year showed around 1,200 special need students went without pre-K in the previous year amid an ongoing shortage of seats.