The American Federation of Teachers has launched a new venture to bring early-childhood educators together in support of higher wages, better working conditions, and more professional-development opportunities.
First Class Teachers, as the campaign is called, will provide preschool and child-care teachers with online resources, including instructional help, message boards, and tips for getting in touch with members of Congress. They can also sign up for AFT membership benefits, such as educational loans or insurance. The Web site—www. firstclassteachers.org—will be frequently updated, AFT officials say.
The new campaign may also become a vehicle for drawing new members to the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union from among workers in preschools and child-care centers.
Marci Young, the director of the initiative, said it is part of the AFT’s overall work to connect with early-childhood educators outside its current membership. “We want to connect these workers to each other, and to our work, in a more substantive way.”
In recent years, the AFT has increased its efforts to organize and support early-childhood educators. (“Child-Care Group, AFT Become Unified Policy Voice,” Oct. 16, 2002.)
The union has been promoting Kindergarten-Plus, an intervention program that gives children at risk of school failure extra instructional time during the summers before and after their kindergarten year.
And in 2002, the Center for the Child Care Workforce, a research and advocacy organization, also led by Ms. Young, merged with the AFT’s educational foundation.
‘Voice of the Workers’
Another goal of the new initiative, Ms. Young added, is to “dispel some of the myths over what unions are and what unions do.”
With the growth of state-financed preschool programs—housed in both public schools and in private child-care centers—the issues for early-childhood teachers are changing, Ms. Young said. Teachers in the same locale but different settings, for instance, might be paid disparate wages although they do the same jobs.
She said she hopes that First Class Teachers will “re-energize people and become a collective voice of the workers themselves.”
Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based author and expert on teachers’ unions, said the AFT has long organized preschool teachers who work for programs that are part of public school districts.
But reaching out to those in the private sector is a new phase for the union—one that is most likely motivated, she said, by an interest in improving early-learning programs, better preparing young children for elementary school, and boosting membership.
Ms. Koppich also said she wondered whether the AFT outreach would lead to more calls for higher qualifications for teachers who work with young children.
Although some program directors have questioned whether unionized child-care workers would end up costing parents more, other experts say they don’t know how much the AFT or other unions can help improve compensation and working conditions for employees when financing for those programs is inconsistent.
“The system is so underfunded, who knows what they can do,” said Lindy Buch, the supervisor of early-childhood and parenting programs for the Michigan education department and the president of the National Association of Early-Childhood Specialists in State Departments of Education.
To further familiarize preschool and child-care teachers with the union’s work, the 1.3 million-member AFT will also convene its first “summit” for early-childhood-education teachers, to be held May 2-3 in Washington.
The event will be targeted at teachers and other child-care and preschool staff members who are not now part of a union.
Participants will learn about the AFT’s actions to focus on early-learning programs and discuss such issues as compensation and staff development. Salary studies have shown that some people working in early-childhood programs make little more than minimum wage and lack adequate benefits.
The union received hundreds of applications from people in more than 20 states wanting to attend the event, but it will be limited to 15 participants, “so we can have a dialogue,” Ms. Young said.
The AFT, however, also plans to convene early-childhood sessions in conjunction with state and regional AFT events that are already scheduled.
Early-childhood workers can become associate members of the AFT on their own, but one of the AFT’s objectives is to “experiment with some state- and regional-based projects” such as one in Washington state, according to Ms. Young.
The Child Care Workforce Alliance of Washington, an associate-membership program of the union, has been lobbying the state on legislation that would reward workers with raises for acquiring more education and experience.
That is the type of grassroots work that First Class Teachers will be involved in, said Leslie Getzinger, an AFT spokeswoman.
“Often, there are two or three child-care workers in a center who don’t realize there are 200 or 300 more with the same problems,” she said. “We want them to help themselves and see that there is power in numbers.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as AFT Extends Its Reach Into Early-Childhood Teaching Corps