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Child-Care Study Is Said To Bolster Case for Aid

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Atlanta--A recent study documenting the low pay and high turnover rates of child-care workers stimulated much discussion among early-childhood professionals meeting here this month about how to improve child-care working conditions.

Debate about how best to use the study results arose during several sessions at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, which drew some 20,000 child-care and early-childhood professionals.

The National Child-Care Staffing Study, released last month by the California-based Child-Care Employee Project, cited an "alarming decline" in child-care salaries in the last decade and said low pay and high turnover are undermining the quality of care. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1989.)

While dismayed by the findings, conference participants appeared hopeful that they could be used to bolster the case for local, state, and federal initiatives to address the problem.

"The question is how do we put the study to work nationally," said Patty Hnatick, field coordinator in Boston for the staffing study.

At workshops and in informal discussions, participants voiced frustration that the child-care profession is "subsidizing" the cost of care. They exchanged anecdotes about low salaries, poor benefits, and the difficulty of attracting qualified staff, and brainstormed about possible solutions.

While acknowledging that raising child-care fees might price some parents out of the market, some participants contended that such action may be needed to spur change.

"If the parents don't get hit with a tuition hike or a strike, they won't get behind us," said Margaret Boyer, director of the Child Care Workers Alliance in Minneapolis. "We'll continue to subsidize their lifestyle."

Others suggested that making child-care licensing contingent on such factors as low staff turnover might help jolt policymakers and administrators into backing higher salaries.

"If my accreditation is threatened because turnover is too high," one participant said, "it dramatizes the problem."

Pointing to prominent nurses' and teachers' unions that started off as associations, some participants suggested that the n.a.e.y.c. move toward becoming a union.

An article published in the September issue of the n.a.e.y.c. journal Young Children was cited by some as evidence that the group may be ready to adopt a stronger stand on salaries than in the past.

The article was written by Jim Morin, a child-care director and teacher, officer of the Wisconsin Childcare Union, and member of the n.a.e.y.c.'s governing board.

He urged members of the profession to "create a vehicle for empowering ourselves as effective, responsible" professionals who have "the will and the way to force fair compensation for the important and essential work we do."

Barbara A. Willer, the n.a.e.y.c.'s information-services director, said the association has assembled an "action kit" on issues concerning child-care quality, compensation, and affordability, and will launch a public-education campaign on the topic next year.

"All of our membership and the positions adopted by our association reflect serious concern about salaries and compensation issues--and the8fact that inadequate compensation of staff directly leads to inadequate quality [of care] for children," Ms. Willer said. But "there is less consensus," she added, on the best strategy to address the issue and "what n.a.e.y.c.'s role should be."

Some observers were skeptical that the association would move toward unionizing, and maintained it can better serve its members by focusing on professional development.

"The single most important factor in achieving our goal of high-quality education and care for our nation's young children is the competence of the adults who staff the programs," Marilyn M. Smith, the n.a.e.y.c.'s executive director, wrote in the group's annual report.

The group has been drafting an "early-childhood professional development model" that would set out various professional categories and describe appropriate qualifications.

While the current system offers "very little reward" for workers to invest in additional training, Ms. Willer said, the professional-development model, which could be adopted as early as this spring, would promote a career ladder that allows "greater expertise to be reflected in your salary."

Carollee Howes, an associate professor of education at the University of California at Los Angeles and a principal investigator for the staffing study, said the findings have stimulated much discussion about what constitutes the best training model.

While the study found the best child-care teachers had "B.A.-level training or better," only 20 percent of those entering the field fit that category--and the pool of such applicants is shrinking.

"It's sort of a dilemma," Ms. Howes said. "You can't require people to have B.A.'s and then give them $5 an hour."

Conference leaders urged their colleagues to lobby the Congress for swift passage of the "act for better child-care services," which would include funds to improve child-care wages and benefits.

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