‘Worthy Wages’ For Child-Care Workers Urged N.A.E.Y.C. Board To Join Campaign

By Deborah L. Cohen — November 20, 1991 9 min read

DENVER--The governing board of the National Association for the Education of Young Children last week unanimously agreed to join a coalition of its members in backing a five-year campaign to support and encourage efforts by child-care workers across the country to secure better wages and benefits.

The board’s action, taken at the N.A.E.Y.C.'S annual conference here, followed three days of discussions and demonstrations led by the campaign’s organizers, a small but vocal group that has been urging the organization to make a more aggressive stand on the salary issue.

Echoing concerns raised by child-care professionals across the country, these advocates have become increasingly frustrated by working conditions that they say are forcing child-care teachers to live “on the edge of poverty’ and jeopardizing the quality of early- childhood programs.

Many also argue that poor pay for child-care workers undermines the goal set by President Bush and the nation’s governors to ensure that all children enter school ready to learn.

“It’s ironic that at a time when there is more consensus than ever in the field about standards, quality, and what’s good for children--and we have the research base to back it up--at the same time, we can’t retain good people,” said Helen Taylor, executive director of a large group of private child-care providers in Washington and a member of the N.A.E.Y.C. governing board.

The “worthy-wage campaign” is being coordinated by the Child Care Employee Project, an Oakland, Calif. based research and advocacy group, with support from several other groups. A key focus of the campaign is a “worthy-wage day” planned for April 9, during the N.A.E.Y.C.'S “week of the young child.” On that day, communities are invited to dramatize the cause with actions ranging from parades to teach-ins to center closings.

Although the N.A.E.Y.C. has not taken a position on center closings per se, its leadership traditionally has opted for less confrontation and more educational approaches to the compensation issue.

“We recognize the inequity of the salary situation and also realize that low salaries are leading to difficulties with recruitment and retention of staff,” said Barbara Wilier, the N.A.E.Y.C.'S public-affairs director. “But we don’t want to create strategies that make it more difficult in the long run to achieve our goal.”

One reason that the N.A.E.Y.C. board backed the worthy-wage campaign, she said, was to promote activities more “educative in nature.” “Part of the logic was that [N.A.E.Y.C. leaders] were better off on the inside trying to understand and influence the campaign than being on the outside,” said Jeff B. Jones, vice president of human resources for Kinder-Care Learning Centers Inc. and member of an N.A.E.Y.C. panel studying compensation issues.

Wage, Quality, and Cost Balance

Through its work in defining “developmentally appropriate” educational practices, accrediting early childhood programs, and upgrading staff training, the N.A.E.Y.C. has been credited with helping to lay the foundation for efforts to improve children’s programs nationwide.

Rather than singling out salaries, however, the N.A.E.Y.C. has focused its efforts on balancing the need to raise wages, improve program quality, and keep programs affordable.

In 1987 the group formed a “quality, compensation, and affordability” panel, and at last year’s conference it kicked off a campaign to determine the “full cost of quality"by publishing a guide analyzing market factors adversely affecting quality care and laying out the consequences for society. (‘See Education Week, Nov. 28, 1990.)

The “full-cost-of-quality” campaign “is a very positive step that sent a message to our field,” said Jim Morin, a former child-care teacher and director who now works with the Child Care Employee Project.

However, missing from that campaign were efforts '@0 go in and work with teachers to ensure a direct role in setting levels of compensation,” said Mr. Morin, who is also a founder of the Child Care Employee Caucus, a subgroup Of N.A.E.Y.c. members formed in 1981 to focus on workforce issues.

While the full cost of quality care is “what we need to be talking to people about,” said Marcy Whitebook, executive director of the Child Care Employee Project, “we need the worthy wage campaign"to prod workers to educate parents “one on one.”

Janice Hale, a professor of early childhood education at Wayne State University who serves on the N.A.E.Y.C. board and chairs its compensation panel, noted that the board sensed that the best-of-quality campaign was moved too slowly for the membership, and the membership was applying pressure to have something done immediately.”

To enlist support at the conference for more aggressive action on salaries, organizers of the worthy-wage campaign handed out leaflets and stickers and staged demonstrations-including a funeral procession, chants, signs, and banners-preceding speeches by Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado and U.S. Representative Patricia Schroeder.

The group also lined the conference facilities with hand-made dolls affixed with grim fact sheets on child-care working conditions.

Despite differences of opinion on tactics, early-childhood professionals uniformly agree that low salaries and high staff turnover rates are compromising the quality and availability of child care.

A study released at the conference by the N.A.E.Y.c., the Education Department, and the Health and Human Services Department showed that, despite increased levels of training, child-care teachers’ wages have declined in real terms in the last 15 years, averaging $11,500 annually. (See Education Week, Nov. 6, 1991 .)

The National Child Care Staffing Study, a 1988 survey by the Child Care Employee Project that included child-care aides as well as teachers, reported average turnover rates of 41 percent and found that children in centers with high turnover were less competent in language and social development than those with stable teaching staffs.

Many conference participants sketched their own scenarios of working for meager or no benefits, buying their own teaching materials, and suffering from chronic “burnout.” They also chronicled co-workers’ decisions to quit for higher-paying jobs.

On the bright side, some presenters cited recent federal legislation containing provisions aimed at improving child-care quality, including salary enhancement.

Provisions included in a Head Start reauthorization measure earmarking a certain percentage of funds for raising salaries have already resulted in about a 7 percent increase, noted Joan Lombardi, an early-childhood and public-policy specialist based in Alexandria, Va.

While regulatory and fiscal barriers have posed more stumbling blocks to raising wages under the child-care block grant approved by the Congress last year, she said, a recent survey showed that 12 to 15 states had “some wording” in their block-grant plans about compensation.

State actions described by conference participants ranged from efforts to revamp the rate structure for subsidized centers to loan-forgiveness programs approved in California and Texas to help defray training costs for early-childhood teaching candidates.

But gaining support for higher wages has been an uphill battle, even in states with strong track records.

In Massachusetts, which passed salary-enhancement legislation several years ago that bolstered childcare workers’ morale and program quality, cuts triggered by economic conditions and a change in administrations have forced advocates too “reassess our strategy,” said Patty Hnatiuk, director of child-care training for the Center for Child Care Policy and Training at Wheelock College.

Debate Over Unions

One route for improving childcare working conditions that was explored in several conference sessions was the movement to unionize.

Advocates of that approach say child-care workers are now in the position teachers were in some 30 years ago, before large numbers became involved in collective bargaining.

At last year’s conference, the N.A.E.Y.C. board was asked to study the possibility of becoming a collective-bargaining agent. In response, it issued a statement in September saying that while the N.A.E.Y.C. is “aggressively committed to improving salaries and working conditions of early-childhood staff’ and recognizes collective bargaining “as one among many strategies,"It would not take on the role of a union.

A new guide to unionizing released at the conference by the Child-Care Employee Project reported that the five unions most actively involved in child-care organizing represent roughly 25,000 to 35,000 child-care teachers in the United States. They include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the American Federation of Teachers, District 65 of the United Auto Workers, the National Education Association, and the Service Employees International Union.

Union representatives from such states as New York, Massachusetts, and California said union activity there had helped bolster support for wages that are among the most competitive in the nation while improving benefits, grievance procedures, and leave policies.

But union officials and child-care personnel also acknowledged the difficulties of attracting workers to unions--and vice versa--in small, isolated centers or regions that have traditionally shunned unions.

“We represent the working poor,” said Jo Navarro, a field representative for the American Federation of Teachers local 1575 in Burbank, Calif. “However minimal they pay, people are scared to lose these jobs.”

Irene Stanko, early-childhood specialist for the Dearborn, Mich., public schools, which entered into a contract June 1 with the U.A.W.'s District 65 to unionize about 700 child-care workers employed in school-based child-care programs, said the effort led to gains in recruiting employees, improving staff credentials, developing a career ladder, opening communication channels, and giving child-care workers a “sense of power.”

But she also described how negotiations initially fostered adversarial relationships, divisiveness, lack of trust, and “paranoia reactions” among staff members.

Who Will Pay?

By far the biggest dilemma facing child-care advocates, however, is determining where the money will come from to raise wages.

“The whole core of the issue is who’s going to pay for it?” said Ms. Taylor of the N.A.E.Y.C. board.

“We cannot fill our slots because the parents cannot afford to pay the fees,” said one director who is leaving the profession as her center prepares to cut its slots and raise fees.

While conceding that many parents cannot afford higher fees, some organizers of the worthy-wage campaign maintain the only way to jolt policymakers into action is to bring the issue to parents’ attention-even if that means disrupting service.

“The ultimate benefactor of child care is business and government,” said Ms. Whitebook of the Child Care Employee Project. “Without child care, neither works.”

But others say the N.A.E.Y.C. should continue to pursue a more broad-based strategy uniting all segments of the profession and parents.

Ms. Hale of Wayne State University said the N.A.E.Y.C. is uniquely positioned to lead the profession in taking “bold steps” to “confront society” about the true costs of high-quality care--and set the standards.

Rather than dividing “workers and owners or teachers and management,” she said, “the struggle is between the entire early-childhood profession and society.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘Worthy Wages’ For Child-Care Workers Urged N.A.E.Y.C. Board To Join Campaign