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Commitment To Kids Society's Support For Child Care Just Isn't Cutting It

February 9, 2006
Commentary By Lena Rodriguez

Compensation for child-care workers is far too low across the country, and the federal budget released this week - with cuts in all domestic social services - is likely to make matters worse.

Connecticut's Child Health and Development Institute laid out the issue in a report called "Shaping Young Lives," published in November. Median annual salary for a classroom teacher in a licensed child-care center is $22,000, and a quarter earn less than $20,000. The situation is worse for assistant teachers, who average $17,000 for full-time work. That's about $10 an hour.

I am not the first to note that our society offers better compensation to those who bathe and groom our pets than to those who care for our children. Perhaps this disparity spotlights the low value that we place upon this crucial work.

But we must also consider the economics of this field, which touches at least 90 percent of the children in Connecticut. It is nearly impossible to turn the revenue generated by parent fees into a reasonable, professional salary for preschool staff: Either the parents are paying far more than they can afford or the teachers are making unacceptably low wages.

Publicly financed early-care programs are an absolute necessity for lower-income working families and those transitioning off welfare. Head Start and other government-funded early-education programs allow many children to attend for free. Other families pay fees on a sliding scale far below market rate - less than $50 per week per child for full-day programming.

Yet public dollars for this all-important service are declining as costs - including heat and health insurance - are rising. Sarah Greene, president of the National Head Start Association, points out that over the past four years, inflation-adjusted funding has declined by more than 5 percent. "In fact, the federal government will appropriate $57 million less for Head Start in 2006 than in the prior year," she says.

This is the backdrop for the strike that started in November by the union that represents the preschool staff at the Community Renewal Team, the region's anti-poverty agency, based in Hartford. We strongly support raising the pay of people working in our early-childhood programs, but funding realities prevent this from occurring. Our staff receives salaries well above the industry average at licensed centers in this region. For example, our yearly median for full-time teachers is $7,685 more than the state median of $22,000. In addition, Community Renewal Team is one of the few child-care providers offering family medical and dental benefits, employer matches on retirement savings accounts, free disability and life insurance, and generous academic leave.

But supporting staff in this way is not inexpensive, and CRT's early-childhood programs ended 2005 with a substantial deficit. The outlook for 2006 is worse, with Congress proposing to cut 24,000 Head Start slots nationwide - nearly 1,000 of which may be in Connecticut. Over the past two years, federal cost-of-living adjustments increased funding by 2.5 percent on the dollar. If you have paid for gasoline or electricity recently, you know that this is not enough to address the actual rise in your costs.

Community Renewal Team runs many familiar programs, including homeless shelters, Meals on Wheels and energy assistance. Each of these faces stringent budgetary constraints, and each must generate enough revenue to cover its costs. To ensure the integrity of our programs, we should not - and we will not - look to one program to subsidize another.

It seems that the majority of our early childhood staff understand this. More than three-quarters of the unionized preschool staff returned to their classrooms within a week of the start of the labor action in November. Most of our families experienced only a brief disruption; all but three of our 83 classrooms are open. Each day, those classrooms are filled with children whose academic, social and even workplace success will be shaped by their preschool experiences.

Research shows that each dollar invested in quality preschool returns many more in long-term benefits for society. We must bring this message to elected officials and public agencies. Our future depends upon it.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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