Early Childhood

Study: Public Pre-K Teachers Better Off Than Private Ones

By Linda Jacobson — October 23, 2002 3 min read
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Prekindergarten teachers who work in schools and other publicly operated settings are better-qualified, get higher pay, and stay in their jobs longer than those who work in classrooms operated by private organizations, a study concludes.

The study, “Inside the Pre-K Classroom: A Study of Staffing and Stability in State-Funded Prekindergarten Programs,” is available from the Center for the Child Care Workforce. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“Inside the Pre-K Classroom,” a study conducted by the Washington-based Center for the Child Care Workforce, found that salaries and turnover rates of pre-K teachers in publicly operated programs more closely resemble those of K- 12 teachers.

At the same time, the characteristics of staff members in community-based prekindergarten programs, operated by private nonprofit and for-profit groups, more closely resemble those of workers in child-care centers. Such centers are known for higher turnover and lower staff salaries and qualifications.

For example, in New York state, teachers in the state-financed “universal prekindergarten” program earn between $10.28 and $13.22 an hour if they work in a private nonprofit or for-profit setting. Those figures are not much higher than the pay range for child-care-center employees, who earn between $8.99 and $11.30 an hour, the study shows.

But pre-K teachers working in school districts in New York are earning between $19.13 and $29.87 an hour.

In California, 82 percent of the preschool teachers working in districts had earned at least associate’s degrees, and 30 percent had earned at least bachelor’s degrees. In privately operated programs in the state, by contrast, just 8 percent of the teachers held at least two-year degrees.

Those disparities, the study’s authors write, appear “to reflect the long-standing split in the U.S. early care and education system between services that emphasize the needs of young children as learners and those that emphasize the work-related needs of families.”

For the study, released this month, the researchers examined publicly financed pre-K programs in California, Chicago, Georgia, New York state, and Texas. In Texas and Chicago, the programs are housed almost exclusively in schools. But California, Georgia, and New York use a mixture of both public and private providers.

“When pre-K efforts are grafted on to an underfunded child-care system, without attention to reaching parity with the standards and resources of public school districts,” the report says, “the results for child-care-based settings are lower compensation, poorer success in recruiting qualified teachers, and higher teaching-staff turnover, all of which jeopardize the preschool learning experiences that prompted the programs’ creation.”

Richard Clifford, a senior scientist for the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill— who is also conducting research on state-financed pre-K programs—said he was not surprised by the study’s findings.

But he added that “it’s too soon to tell” whether the variations in staff qualifications and pay are detrimental to the preschoolers in the classroom.

“It’s a complicated picture,” he said.

Different Strengths

Both school-based and community-based prekindergarten programs have their strengths, the authors of the study note.

Programs based in public schools, they say, have had greater success at finding and keeping a “stable cohort of well-trained teachers.” Yet private programs do a better job of supplementing part-day pre-K services with the full-day care that many working parents need, according to the authors.

They stress that both kinds of settings, whether public or private, have the potential to provide excellent services if the standards are equal. The authors recommend that all state-supported preschool programs be held to the same standards, and that policymakers provide money to implement the standards, especially those on staff qualifications and compensation.

States should also ensure, the report says, “that all pre-K teaching staff, wherever they work, have appropriate access to and financial support for pursuing and completing the professional training that is required of them.”

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