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Low Wages, Turnover Still Hurt Child Care, Survey Finds

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A follow-up survey of child-care centers involved in a 1988 study on working conditions in the centers suggests that low wages and high staff turnover continue to undermine the stability of the care that many children receive.

Both studies were conducted by the Child Care Employee Project, based in Oakland, Calif., in collaboration with researchers from the University of Virginia and the University of California at Los Angeles.

The 1988 National Child Care Staffing Study involved 227 centers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Phoenix, and Seattle that offered full-day, full-year care and were state-licensed.

Based on its rating of the quality of those centers, the study concluded that staff wages were the workplace variable most closely linked to the quality of care. Other predictors of quality included staff turnover, training and education of care-givers, adult-child ratios, and accreditation.

The purpose of the follow-up study, conducted last year, was to determine whether conditions at the centers had changed and to offer public-policy recommendations.

The 1992 sample included all 193 centers that were still in operation. But the report's authors note that it was based on telephone interviews with center directors and did not involve the extensive classroom observations, staff interviews, and child assessments done in 1988.

The new study concludes that "the overall quality of centers remains worrisome as indicated by the low wages, lack of health coverage, and high turnover'' among the teaching staffs at the study sites.

The data show that during the period the hourly wages of the lowest-paid assistants--which the C.C.E.P. calls the "fastest-growing segment of the child-care workforce''--fell in real terms from $5.16 to $5.08. The salaries of the highest-paid teachers increased only from $8.19 to $8.85.

"Child-care staff in 1992, as in 1988, continue to earn less than half as much as comparably educated women and less than one-third as much as comparably educated men in the civilian labor force,'' the report notes.

It also shows that the majority of centers offered their employees either no or limited health insurance, and that only 18 percent paid the full monthly health-insurance premium for all full-time teachers.

The study also shows staff turnover remained a problem in 1992.

Although the average yearly turnover rate fell from 41 percent to 26 percent between 1988 and 1992, the study notes that 70 percent of the teaching staff interviewed in 1988 had left their jobs by 1992.

The report suggests the lower annual rate in 1992 may reflect "a substantial increase in unemployment, which typically reduces job opportunities.'' It also notes that a 26 percent turnover rate is still nearly "three times the annual turnover reported by all U.S. companies'' and twice the rate of government, schools, and nonprofit agencies.

Confirming "the strong link between wages and turnover'' found in the 1988 study, the follow-up showed child-care teachers on the lower end of the wage continuum were the most likely to leave.

Role in School Readiness

The 1988 study suggested teacher turnover affects not only the stability of care but also children's progress in language and social development.

Marcy Whitebook, the group's director, said child care can play a key role in school-readiness and welfare-reform initiatives, but only with "qualified and committed teachers.''

"If we really want to stand behind our rhetoric about children,'' she said, steps must be taken to "make this a career people are really proud of and able to carry on.''

Besides urging investments to insure families of all incomes access to good care, the report recommends that all federal early-childhood programs set aside funds to raise wages.

It also calls for comprehensive, affordabale health-care coverage for child-care providers and measures to increase access to higher education for child-care teachers.

Information on ordering the report, "The National Child Care Staffing Study Revisited: Four Years in the Life of Center-Based Child Care,'' is available from the Child Care Employee Project, 6536 Telegraph Ave., Suite A-201, Oakland, Calif. 94609-1114.

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