My son was enrolled in a five-star child care program when he was six months old. Like many moms, it broke my heart to hand his care over to other people for ten hours out of the day, five days a week. I looked forward to pick-up every day. I enjoyed seeing his smile, playing with the other babies and chatting with his caring teachers.
It was during one of those chats that I was alerted to something amiss. His teacher asked me what we had planned for the weekend. After I answered, I reciprocated: what would she be doing? Turns out she would be working. Her third job. She worked at the childcare facility, a hair salon, and McDonald’s, all in an attempt to make ends meet.
Now, I applaud her for her hard work, but I couldn’t help thinking, “I want someone well-rested looking after my son!”
That’s almost impossible to find in early education and childcare facilities today when the average pay is under $11 an hour.
Low pay in these centers affects the care our children receive. If you want to attract the best, you have to pay for it. While the education level of early childcare teachers is on the rise, the salaries are not increasing to compensate the teachers.
It also doesn’t encourage new talent to join the field or allow current teachers to remain as they try to build their own families.
Kristy Umfleet has a bachelor’s degree, a birth-to-kindergarten teaching license, and Early Education Certification. She has worked in the same pre-k classroom at a five-star facility in Greensboro, NC, for over a decade, but she can’t afford to have her children enrolled in the program. After her first son was born, her mother watched him. When he was two, Kristy and her husband enrolled him in the school part-time. She said they had to “work our way to full time and see where else we could sacrifice to afford it.”
Her eldest is nine-and-a-half years old. Her youngest is two. Part of the reason for the age gap between the two boys is the cost of quality early education. She said, “Because I’m in the [early education and childcare] field and we wanted our child to be in a high quality program, we knew that we couldn’t afford to have two kids in childcare. We waited until [our first child] was in kindergarten before having our second. It wouldn’t make sense for me to work with two. I’d be working to pay for childcare.”
In fact, Kristy has worked with other teachers who have had their children enrolled in the program but couldn’t pay for it.
And if those teachers don’t have family nearby? The high cost of quality childcare means that the ability of people without family willing and able to help is impacted. Kristy says, “For working families, it’s essential to have early care nearby for the community and economy. We support working families directly by allowing them to be at work every day.”
But people like Kristy aren’t being supported.
Last week I wrote about NC Child Care Coalition’s efforts to see child care subsidy rates improved in the 2016-17 budget, explaining that “without fair rates, childcare providers aren’t enticed to serve subsidized families and give them access to high-quality organizations.”
Without fair subsidy rates, even if providers serve subsidized families, they can’t fairly compensate their employees.
Referring to the 20,000 children on the NC child care subsidy waitlist, Kristy said, “There are many more [children] who need high quality care that aren’t getting it, and we don’t have the teachers to fill the demand. If we have programs that increase the accessibility for families to get their children to childcare and affordability, we need the teachers.”
“We don’t have [teachers] entering the field and those that do, we lose them because they can’t afford to stay in the field. Many reasons we lose teachers once they get in are due to compensation. We need to help our early child care professionals feel valued and help them get certification and degrees.”
Kristy is a member of Worthy Wages Campaign – Guilford County, “a small group of professionals who have come together to educate and advocate for early childcare programs.”
The organization talks to “decisionmakers who are making changes so that teachers can make better salaries and get compensated for the work they do.”
Kristy says the early child care field has “changed a lot. There are many more teachers that have at least an associate degree, many more that have bachelors, and some that have masters, but the salary has gone nowhere even though the education has risen. Many teachers have the education level of Guilford County schools and there’s funding for those schools that doesn’t trickle down.”
The debate over the budget is drawing to a close. Last week I urged you to call your house and state representatives. If you did, thank you. If you didn’t, please do so now. Think of Kristy and her co-workers, fellow moms and dads, and the people caring for your children.
Kristy wants people to know the “time is now. The money has to be there. We have to find some funding to compensate the teachers or it’s going to be even worse. It’s a really bad situation now. It’s just a smaller amount of teachers who continue to fight the fight and continue to provide for the children despite all the hardships.”
Let’s support them before that pool of teachers becomes a puddle that dries up.
Jennifer Brick is a freelance writer and former teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.