New degree rule could mean a shortage of preschool teachers

Requiring preschool teachers of students from low-income families to have a bachelor’s degree may sound like a good idea, but not to Noribel Roman; for her, the recent state law means she would have to spend about $20,000 to earn a bachelor’s degree to keep her low-wage job.

Noribel Roman

Noribel Roman

“Considering what we get paid here, I can’t afford that student loan,” she said while preparing her classroom at a preschool in Hartford.

Her boss, Jessenia Santos-Seda, said all six teachers at her non-profit preschool face the same dilemma: earn a bachelor’s degree or face losing their jobs when the law takes effect in 2015.

“It’s ridiculous. Most of my teachers are low income and to ask them to pay [for school] to keep their same low-paying job is unfortunate,” Santos-Seda said. “If they can’t pay for it they are going to just give up and go get a new job.”

Her daycare center is not alone. Early childcare experts say daycare centers around the state that receive School Readiness money from the state to subsidize students from low-income families are facing a massive teacher shortage if the requirements are not changed. Connecticut Charts-A-Course, an early childcare professional development resource and employee registry, reports 1,018 preschool teachers — or 59 percent of all School Readiness preschool teachers — currently do not have a bachelor’s degree.

“There is no way we are going to meet that requirement. The preschools are in a panic and we really have not planned as a state what we are going to do,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, whose career has focused on early childcare and is also the co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

Santos-Seda said her teachers — who get paid between $8 and $10 an hour — are eager to go to school but don’t have the ability to take out large students loans.

“They know they won’t be able to repay them,” she said.

State lawmakers appropriated $1.6 million in the current two-year budget for scholarships for preschool teachers who want to get their bachelor’s degree but can’t afford to do so on their own, but that money ran out at the beginning of January, Charts-A-Course Executive Director Darlene Ragozzine said. So far the state has spent $3 million on scholarships, but the number of teacher with degrees at School Readiness programs is still less than half.

Jessenia Santos-Seda

Jessenia Santos-Seda

Now Charts-A-Course, which administers the scholarship program, has a long waiting list of teachers hoping the state puts up additional money.

Roman’s name is on that list and said she has no plans to enroll in school unless state lawmakers decide to provide scholarships.

“They are the ones requiring this, so they have to compensate in some way to pay for my school,” she said.

Claudia Sawyer, a career advisor at Charts-A-Course, said if the state plans to stay on course with this requirement they are going to need to provide much more money for scholarships.

“I am always having to tell [teachers], ‘Oh gosh, we don’t have the money to help you,” she said. “I have people say ‘Let them fire me then. I can make much more money at Stop and Shop.'”

An analysis of Professional Development Registry data provided by Connecticut Charts-A-Course indicates that early education teachers with bachelor degrees in community-based programs earn an average starting salary of $26,200, which greatly reduces the attractiveness of obtaining a degree in early childhood education.

“Something has to change,” Sawyer said. “We have people who are stuck. It breaks your heart what they are dealing with. These teachers want to keep their job but they also don’t want to take on debt to get paid the same.”

With the state facing a massive $3.67 billion deficit, finding anyone who believes lawmakers will be able to provide more money for scholarships is a challenge. Instead, Bye said a “more reasonable” expectation is that lawmakers will amend the requirements and create a cheaper and faster program for teachers.

“Everyone is saying universal preschool but we don’t have the workforce. There is a workforce crisis that is on the way if we don’t do something now to make it easier for qualified people to teach preschool,” Bye said.

She is putting her support behind a “more realistic” proposal that would require that just 50 percent of teachers have a bachelor’s degree by July 2015 and the remaining 50 percent have an associate’s degree. She plans to hold a public hearing in the next month on the topic.

Even meeting that requirement will be a challenge, but Charts-A-Course officials and Santos-Seda said it will be easier to comply with.

The state’s dozen community colleges graduate about 265 students a year in early childhood programs, Charts-A-Course reports.

Requiring the 50-50 split could also help address the constant turnover at the preschools among those that earn their bachelor’s degree. Charts-A-Course says each year one out of every five teachers with a bachelor’s degree leaves.

“They are required to go for a bachelor’s. So they go ahead and get certified. They can just jump ship and go work in a public school and make more money. Why would they stay in a low-paying job?” Ragozzine said. “The upcoming requirements have to change.”

The State Department of Education reported last year that because these teachers will expect higher pay, the cost to operate state-funded preschools will have to increase in order to recruit and retain staff with bachelor’s degrees. Connecticut spends almost $74 million each year to subsidize preschool programs in low-income areas across the state. The SDE estimates there is a need for about 13,000 additional slots — an expansion that is estimated to cost $100 million.