Jul 09, 2016Times Argus
Lola Duffort
As Vermont implements universal access to 10 hours of publicly funded pre-kindergarten this fall, national experts are highlighting the poor pay and working conditions of early education workers across the country — including the Green Mountain State.
 
A state-by-state analysis of early childhood employment conditions and policies — released this week by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley — argues pay and conditions for early educators across the country basically guarantee a subpar experience for children.
 
“The priority tends to be — how many kids can we get access?” said Caitlin McLean, a workforce research specialist at CSCCE who co-authored the The Early Childhood Workforce Index. 
 
“And in the process, that sometimes means that we cut costs in other ways,” she said. “So it’s not necessarily well: What’s required, what’s the cost of providing high quality care? Which should include paying teachers a living wage. But that doesn’t always factor in.”
 
Nearly one-half of child care workers participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps, according to the report.
 
Vermont has about 36,607 children aged five or under, and about 2,300 workers caring for them, according to the Index.
 
Vermont does do some things well, according McLean, especially where the state’s child-care program quality rating system works.
 
“It’s not that common for states to prioritize the work environment for teachers, an essential part of quality,” McLean said. “But in Vermont, they actually say, higher quality programs should provide paid time for teachers to attend professional development, to have paid planning and preparation time — these things that are crucial for teachers to do a good job.”
 
And unlike many states, McLean said, Vermont does require some minimum qualifications for child-care workers and preschool teachers. The state doesn’t require, however, that all preschool teachers have bachelor’s degrees.
 
Vermont also got credit in the CSCCE’s Index for public policy outside the early education field, like its paid sick days law and expanded Medicaid eligibility.
 
But ultimately, McLean said, Vermont’s main problem was one common across all 50 states — poor pay.
 
“The compensation issue is really the big issue here,” McLean said. “You can’t just say, we’re going to help people get higher education or better qualified without also making sure that they are paid more. Because then you can’t keep people in the field.”
 
The report advocates for parity in starting salaries between early education teachers and teachers in the K-12 system.
 
The report did not rank states, McLean said, because it was too difficult to account for cost of living. But it did include statistics about the way in which child-care workers and preschool teachers were compensated compared to other workers in the state.
 
With a median wage in 2015 of $11.25 an hour, child-care workers in Vermont were in the bottom 5th percentile of workers, according to the index. At $14.13 an hour, pre-school teachers were in the 17th percentile.
 
The issues highlighted in the UC Berkeley index were echoed just last month in a U.S. Department of Education report released in conjunction with the United State of Women Summit.
 
The national median annual wage for preschool teachers is $28,570 — about half of what elementary and kindergarten teachers make, according to the Department of Education report, which noted that in all states, median earnings for the child-care workforce would qualify a worker with a family of three for food stamps.
 
The federal government’s report also noted that while education and training requirements are becoming more stringent for early educators — 97 percent of whom are women — pay is not improving. 
 
“Historically, this work was seen as just something that women did naturally, and were expected to do for free,” McLean said. “So for that reason, I think it’s kind of a holdover that people still expect that women will just do it because they love children. There’s not really a recognition that these — largely women still — are trying to make a living. And they can’t just volunteer this time.”
 
The U.S. Department of Education report also noted that pay varied significantly depending on the type of child-care setting. For example, it cited a $6.70 per hour difference in median wages between employment in a public school sponsored program compared to a community-based program for an individual with a bachelor’s degree.
 
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