Meeting education goals for child care teaching staffs in doubt

Concern is mounting that the requirements of a state law boosting educational standards for staff at state-funded child care centers are not achievable — and with a July 1 deadline fast-approaching, early childhood educators are scrambling for solutions to draw in qualified teachers.

For state-subsidized early child care centers to continue to receive aid after the July 1 deadline, half of their teachers must have a teacher’s certificate or a bachelor’s degree in a field related to early childhood education.

By 2020, all teachers in the field will be required to hold a bachelor’s degree.

But some child care professionals are worried that their schools will not be able to recruit enough qualified staff because of the low wages in the early childhood education field. Public schools are also putting pressure on the market by providing free preschool and paying their teachers higher wages.

“It’s my argument that we will not make this, and the Office of Early Childhood is being very coy about this,” said Merrill Gay, executive director of the Early Childhood Alliance, which represents early child care providers. “The party line is, ‘stay positive,’ but they know there are programs that are not going to make it; my members are telling me that they cannot meet this deadline.”

About 20 percent of child care centers in Connecticut receive state subsidies in the form of School Readiness funding, and last year more than $80 million was distributed to centers. State-subsidized centers provide child care to low-income families. The School Readiness Council requires that at least 60 percent of the children enrolled in a center receiving funding be at or below 75 percent of the state median income.

These subsidies allow community centers to charge families on a sliding scale based on income.

There are 4,078 teachers in state-subsidized early child care programs, 1,351 of whom hold a bachelor’s degree. Only 591 have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education, according to the Connecticut Charts-A-Course professional registry.

The Office of Early Childhood recently announced that those child care centers that fail to meet the requirement on deadline can request an extension and will continue to receive school readiness funds.

The legislature’s Education Committee recently approved a bill that would require the Office of Early Childhood to develop a plan to implement the law.

Proponents of the increased educational requirements say the state needs to increase payments to child care programs so teachers with more education can be paid more. More scholarships are also necessary in order to induce professionals to join the field, they say.

The office has proposed doubling scholarship amounts for educators seeking to fulfill the requirements from $5,000 to $10,000. This increase would be paid for with leftover agency funding.

This year, the office provided 668 students scholarships totaling $1.8 million.

The bill would also exempt a limited number of current child care teachers if they have an associate’s degree, 12 credits in early education courses and have worked at the same facility since 1995.

Studies done in the early 2000s increased the focus on children’s formative years and advocated for the advancement of early childhood education. Gay cited one report in particular, Neurons to Neighborhoods, as an impetus for nationwide reappraisal of the importance of a toddler’s development.

“It takes the field from babysitting, to early education. And the problem is we’ve been paying people like babysitters, and we now understand that this is a time of incredible growth, and given enough stimulation, they can reach their optimal growth.”

The average salary of a teacher in a state-subsidized child care center is $34,968, according to the Connecticut Charts-A-Course registry.

The statute increasing education requirements for staff was passed in 2005. Originally bachelor’s degree requirements were to be met by 2010 and 2015, however, according to Sen. Beth Bye, who established the Office of Early Childhood, an extension was required after centers felt they could not meet the deadlines.

Bye, who is a former early childhood educator, said that, regardless of the imperfect implementation, the statute is the right step forward for early child care in Connecticut.

“We’re spending hundreds of millions, and we’re finding that early childhood only matters if it’s high quality… It’s not always perfect, but we have to have standards,” Bye said.

While Bye realizes the wage issue facing early childhood educators, she said the matter goes deeper than pay; early child care is an industry in transition.

Many community child care centers subsidize their infant and toddler care with revenue from their preschool programs. Infant and toddler care costs more because the teacher-child ratio is 1 to 4 versus 1 to 10 for preschoolers. As more public and magnet schools open their own, free preschool programs, community centers are losing vital revenue for infant and toddler care, which public and magnet schools rarely operate.

There are cascading effects: As community centers lose families, they may have to charge higher rates, pay lower wages to their teachers, or stop providing infant and toddler care.

“If all we had were issues with degrees, it would be an easy problem, but the truth is they’re losing market share.” Bye said

Amber Creighton-Pavey is a preschool teacher at the Middlesex YMCA in Middletown, where she started working after graduating with a master’s degree in early childhood education in 2005.

“I am a rarity,” she said.

However, while Pavey felt more than qualified to teach preschool, she said she was not prepared to face the low wages and poor living standards of an early childhood educator. Additionally, despite her qualifications, getting a job in the field of her dreams proved difficult because of her specialized education.

Pavey wanted to teach in a public school’s preschool program, but she found that, although qualified to teach up to the third grade, public schools would rather shuffle their elementary teachers between preschool and other grades than hire such a specialized early childhood instructor.

“I never expected that I would make a lot of money. I knew teachers in general are undervalued and don’t make a huge paycheck. I thought I would earn enough to make a living…” Pavey said. “I did invest a lot of money in my college, and I thought that would result in an equal return of my investment. I don’t regret becoming a preschool teacher, but I do wish I had been better advised.”

Pavey said she accumulated more than $100,000 in debt to achieve her education and her salary last year was $30,000.

“Honestly, I have told several people who have asked me…not to major in early childhood education. If you’re really passionate and want to be a teacher, major in elementary education.”

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