For example, two years ago, Nurtury Boston opened a state-of-the-art center in a public housing facility in Boston. They had seven infant rooms, with families able to pay full tuition lining up for spots. But the center was unable to fill the rooms because they couldn’t find qualified lead teachers.
“We either didn’t have applicants or those we had couldn’t work for money offered,” said Wayne Ysaguirre, the Nurtury president and CEO. Nurtury was offering a lead teacher with a BA between $15.64 and $18.66 and hour, depending on experience—between roughly $32,000 and $38,000 a year. In contrast, the average yearly salary for a kindergarten teacher in Massachusetts is $67,170 a year.
By its very nature, childcare is expensive. And it all comes down to people. The cost of labor makes up 80 percent of childcare costs. That’s because, compared to elementary school, where one teacher is responsible for about 21 students, one teacher can care for four to six infants or six to 10 toddlers and preschoolers. Early educators bear the brunt of the burden when providers like Nurtury hit financial struggles.
“I am having to make choices I never want to make,” Ysaguirre admits. He’s stripped benefits from the staff in order to make ends meet, including cutting the portion of health care Nurtury pays, and no longer contributing to teacher retirement funds. He is even considering ending paid lunch breaks and raising the teacher-child ratios. “I hate having to put this on the backs of these folks who are already so low paid. These are terrible choices for everyone.”
Silva’s experience and those of other caregivers in Massachusetts reflect that of an entire nation of childcare workers. The median hourly wage for childcare workers in the U.S. is $9.77 an hour, which places them in only the second percentile of wage earners when all professions are ranked, making it one of the lowest paid professions in the country. Close to half (46 percent) of childcare workers, compared to about one quarter (26 percent) of the total U.S. workforce, are on public assistance. Low wages can lead to high teacher burnout, high levels of teacher stress, and high teacher turnover; the national turnover rate for childcare workers is 13 percent, significantly higher than the 3.4 percent turnover rate for all non-farm jobs. All of this compromises the consistency of care parents require and the quality of care children need.
“Don’t tell me we don’t subsidize childcare in the United States,” said Mary Brown, who has spent 30 years as a childcare center director and childcare consultant. “We do. It’s the teachers, mostly women, who’ve been subsidizing childcare all along.”
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In 2014, Marie St. Fleur, the president and CEO of the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, became the driving force behind the Put Massachusetts Kids First Coalition. The coalition is a group of over 70—and growing—organizations from across the state that came together with the hope of strengthening and stabilizing the early-education workforce. “We had to make the legislature understand that they cannot simply ignore the workforce who are building our next generation,” St. Fleur said. “ It’s shameful, but society still has not figured out how to deal with this issue.”
Although the coalition initially asked for an investment of $40 million, the state allotted only about a quarter of that, $12.5 million, in the 2017 budget. For St. Fleur, the hope is that this partial success story can serve as a critical wake-up call regarding the crippled state of the entire childcare economy.