By Shauna Curphey
Thursday, May 2, 2002
A Connecticut senator and advocates for child-care workers are attempting to rekindle interest in stalled legislation aimed at increasing the education and wages of those tending to the nation's children under age 6.
(WOMENSENEWS)--April Turner's hourly wage of $13.98 as an assistant director at the Beverly Farms Child Care Center in Potomac, Md., is nearly double the median earnings in her field, yet she can't afford to send her two sons there. She works a second job on weekends at a center for senior citizens so that the family can pay child-care expenses for the two boys, insurance, rent, car payments and other bills.
"The only way we can keep quality staff is quality pay," Turner says. "Parents can't afford to pay more. I know I can't."
Turner's predicament reflects a national dilemma. Though research shows that high turnover rates and lack of training in the child-care workforce contribute to lower quality of care, educated child-care workers can't afford to stay in the field and parents can't afford to pay more to keep them there.
Advocates hope that a study released Wednesday will encourage legislators to improve the compensation of child-care workers. The study, a joint effort of the Center for the Child Care Workforce and the University of Washington's Human Services Policy Center, estimates that there are 2.3 million paid caregivers in the child-care workforce. The figures reveal a larger child-care sector than previously indicated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau, which the authors believe failed to completely tally the self-employed members of the workforce.
Marci Young, executive director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, says the study will aid policymakers when they budget for legislation such as the Focus on Committed and Underpaid Staff for Children's Sake Act, commonly referred to as FOCUS.
U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, introduced the legislation last year, the first proposed federal legislation specifically targeted toward improving training and wages in the child-care workforce. It would provide funding to states for annual stipends to encourage child-care teacher retention. It would also offer scholarships for child-care workers to receive formal training in early-childhood education.
In a recent Senate committee hearing on improving child care, Dodd told his colleagues, "It's a crime that child-care workers, on average, earn around $16,000 a year . . . If we are to expect better outcomes for children, then we must first work to strengthen the child-care workforce."
The median hourly wage for child-care workers was $7.43 in 2000--just 11 cents more than median hourly pay for pet-shop clerks and far less than half the median earnings of elementary school teachers, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Most child-care workers do not have health insurance or a pension plan and only 4 percent are represented by a union, according to recent research by the center.
These low wages and meager benefits contribute to a 30 percent average annual turnover rate among child-care staff, those in the field argue. This churning of the child-care workforce affects the three out of five children under age 6 who spend an average of 30 hours per week cared for by someone other than their parents.
Although there are no estimates available on the actual shortage of child-care workers, the University of Washington research indicates that the current turnover rates mean that 211,000 people need to join the child-care workforce annually to keep up.
At the same time, tuition for full-day child-care programs can cost families from $4,000 to $10,000 annually, according to research by the Children's Defense Fund. But space and equipment expenses and the staff-intensive nature of the work mean the high fees translate into low wages. In fact, the children often receive mediocre child care, despite the high cost.
When child-care teachers and administrators leave their jobs, their replacements are often less-educated: Nearly half of those who leave child-care work hold a bachelor's degree, according to a 2001 study conducted by the University of California, Berkley, and Center for the Child Care Workforce. Staff without a college education, but with significant on-the-job experience, are also likely to find higher paying work outside the field.
"There's a real urgency . . . those of us maintaining quality programs recognize something has to be done," says Debbie Lebo, co-founder of the Washington-area Worthy Wages Coalition, which organized a rally Wednesday in support of Dodd's proposals.
Dodd followed the states' example to maintain high-quality programs. FOCUS found its model in the Child Care WAGES Project and the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps Early Childhood Project, both of which were launched in North Carolina and replicated in other states.
The stipend portion of the FOCUS Act is based on North Carolina's Child Care WAGES Project. Launched 1994, WAGES gives low-paid child-care workers a salary bonus for every six consecutive months they spend in the same child-care program. The amount of the bonus depends on the worker's level of education. Recent results indicate participants were less likely to leave their jobs and more likely to pursue college-level coursework. California, Oklahoma, Kansas, New York, Montana and Wisconsin have similar programs.
The teacher-education project, which has caught on in 19 states since it first began in 1990, gives scholarships to child-care workers to complete early-childhood education courses. Recipients receive a raise or bonus when they finish their coursework and must commit to remaining in the field for six months to a year. Recent program results from North Carolina indicate that program participants completed an average of 13 semester hours per scholarship; saw their compensation improve by over 10 percent annually; and left their child-care centers at a rate of less than 10 percent per year.
Sue Russell, executive director of the Child Care Services Association, which oversees the teacher-education project, says more states want to run such a program, but "the barrier is the dollars, and that is what the FOCUS bill is trying to address."
FOCUS has been stalled in committee since Dodd introduced it last year. Last month he and other senators introduced the 2002 Access to High Quality Child Care Act, which includes provisions of the FOCUS Act. The access act would reauthorize the Child Care Development Block Grant Act of 1990, legislation originally authored by Dodd, which for the first time provided federal funding to states for child-care subsidies for low-income families.
President Bush announced his own child-care initiative on April 9. His "Good Start, Grow Smart" plan calls for training Head Start teachers in early-literacy techniques, but does not include provisions to train and retain other members of the child-care workforce. The Bush administration's push to increase the work requirement from 30 to 40 hours a week as part of the Welfare Reauthorization Act also will mean more demand for child-care workers. "There's a big push now to get kids ready to learn," says Turner. "We're the ones making them ready to learn."
Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida.
Center for the Child Care Workforce:
The Teacher Education and Compensation Helps Early Childhood Project:
Working For Worthy Wages: The Child Care Compensation Movement
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