Posted Feb 25, 2017 at 8:00 PM
Updated Feb 25, 2017 at 11:09 PM
By Scott O'Connell
Telegram & Gazette Staff
Losing needed staff is never a good thing. But for early childhood education centers these days, it can be especially demoralizing, said Kim Davenport, who recalled the case of one aspiring teacher who recently passed up a full-time classroom job for a higher-paying gig – at Dick's Sporting Goods.
"We're losing the talent we really need in these programs," said Ms. Davenport, managing director of a multiagency initiative underway in Worcester aimed at expanding the city's preschool options.
A combination of demanding educational requirements and low compensation have created a workforce crisis in the state's early childhood education industry, which mounting research suggests plays a critical role in preparing children for success later in school. Centers have had to deal with constant staff turnover, classroom closures and other negative effects as a result, advocates and center directors say.
But those experts are also hopeful this year could finally mark a turning point, as the state's lawmakers pledge a renewed focus on providing more funding to child care and preschool programs across Massachusetts.
"I think this is the year," said Amy O'Leary, director of Boston-based Strategies for Children's Early Education for All campaign. "I think we're seeing a tipping point for legislative leaders."
The various people and organizations working on the issue have agreed that workforce development should be their main priority, she said. Especially as major cities across the state, including Worcester, plan to increase families' access to child care and preschool, there will be a need for more workers in a sector that is having trouble just keeping the employees it already has.
A major part of the problem is that, on average, early education teachers and other classroom staff are making a pittance compared to elementary and secondary teachers – the average salary range in the state for the former, according to an estimate a few years ago from the Department of Early Education and Care, was only $22,501 to $25,000 at center-based programs. The average public school teacher in the state, meanwhile, made more than $74,000 last school year.
"It's tough – the money just isn't there," said Kristy Colameta, a preschool teacher with six years of experience at the Guild of St. Agnes early education and child care center on Granite Street in Worcester, who added she is lucky to have a spouse who is able to provide financial support to her. "There are high expectations for education (attainment). But not enough money."
Most child care centers and preschools require one teacher like Ms. Colameta who has at least attained a bachelor's degree per classroom. Many teachers go on to obtain even higher degrees.
But there is no real reward waiting at the end of those investments, said Worcester State University education professor Carol Donnelly. "I have students graduating with master's degrees, and their income isn't going to change at all," she said.
Part of the problem is an economic reality of early childhood education: Classrooms need to have a lower student-to-teacher ratio than the typical ratios found in grade school, which limits how much per pupil spending can be dedicated to a single staff member. In addition, advocates on the issue say the state has long underfunded the hundreds of subsidized centers in Massachusetts, providing funding well below market rate. While the state gives a per-pupil allocation just north of $9,000, the actual expense to programs to enroll that student can be up to $15,000, Ms. Davenport said.
"There's only so much you can tap the parents for in the low-income groups and increasingly in the middle-income groups" to make up the rest of that cost, she said, adding some centers instead try to find grants or seek help from local organizations that are able to provide financial assistance.
That scenario leaves little room for pay increases for staff, which results in frequent turnover, as teachers leave for higher-paying grade-school jobs or other fields entirely. To keep up, some centers have to hire less qualified applicants and do more on-the-job training, advocates said.
"We're seeing teachers just churning," said Sharon MacDonald, program director at Guild of St. Agnes and director of member serves at the Worcester-based Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care. "The stability for the kids just isn't there."
A lack of staff also prevents more families from enrolling at early childhood centers; according to a survey conducted by the Birth to 3rd Grade Alignment project, 95 percent of Worcester providers were at full capacity last year, and 85 percent had a waiting list. That same study found nearly one-third of incoming kindergartners in the Worcester public schools had no formal preschool experience in 2015.
But relief could come soon from Beacon Hill. State representatives and senators so far have filed several bills this new session that would approve rate increases for providers, ensure cost-of-living increases for workers and fund preschool expansion plans in cities and towns. House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo has also spoken out about the need to tackle the workforce problem.
Sen. Jennifer L. Flanagan, D-Leominster, meanwhile, has a bill that would dedicate a small fraction of excise taxes to create an "early educator rewards program" that would provide extra compensation for staff at eligible programs.
"Unfortunately, we are where we are," Ms. Flanagan said, explaining there would be no need to pursue such unorthodox ways of funding early childhood education if the state's regular education budget had enough money. "We have to slowly crawl our way out of it."
Despite uncertainty at the federal level with the transition to new leadership in the Department of Education and Health and Human Services, local early childhood education advocates are hopeful the U.S. government will also continue to play an important support role, thanks to the Obama administration's 2014 reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a key source of funding for local programs and initiatives. Ms. Davenport, for example, said she is hopeful Worcester's Birth to 3rd Grade Alignment project will soon receive a federal grant like the one five other cities in the state recently received to fund their preschool expansion plans.
Local colleges have also tried to help by better tailoring their early childhood education programs to the most relevant needs in the market. Quinsigamond Community College, for instance, recently retired three of their older degree and certificate programs and replaced them with new programs designed to streamline degree attainment and more flexibly accommodate students, who more often tend to be existing workers in the field.
Despite the drawbacks of the profession, higher education officials said they're still finding enough students willing to go into the field.
"But it's a tough sell, especially for parents," said Charlene Mara, professor of early childhood education and coordinator of the Early Childhood Education Program at QCC.
Ms. Donnelly said her school's program is also still struggling to meet local market demand for workers. "There are just too many spots available" with not enough new graduates to fill them, she said.
Advocates and leaders in the field are finding their best bet may be to leverage multiple local sectors to address those issues. The Birth to 3rd Grade Alignment initiative in Worcester, for instance, is made up of representatives from private child care and preschool centers, the city schools, local colleges and service agencies in Worcester.
"We've shifted our strategy to thinking about going deeper in a community," said Ms. O'Leary, who believes a local, customized approach to addressing early childhood education needs in individual cities and towns could be more fruitful than trying to solve the issue on the state level only.
Whatever the approach, some advocates say time is running out. Ms. MacDonald said Guild of St. Agnes this year had to temporarily close a classroom because of lack of staff, and that other centers in the region have had to do likewise dealing with their own shortages. While larger providers have been able to weather those challenges more effectively than smaller ones, they can't hold on much longer, she said.
"The whole system is starting to crumble," she said. "A couple more years of this, there's no way."
Scott O'Connell can be reached at Scott.O'Connell@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottOConnellTG