By Milagros Battiti and Adria Godfrey
Do you love what you do? Do you feel called to do a job, no matter how stressful it feels some days?
We do. We are both early education teachers in Northeast Philadelphia.
We work with 20 or so tiny souls who need us to provide a sense of safety, structure and the excitement of learning. We work with their parents and guardians, too, helping them navigate the challenges of being a working parent, of hunting for the supports their children need.
Doing all this makes us very happy. But it doesn’t pay our bills.
In Pennsylvania, educating other people’s small children while they work doesn’t pay enough to provide for your own children. Or to pay the student loans you piled up getting trained to do the work. Or, sometimes, even to go out with your friends for a modest meal.
A study by Children First found that the average pay for early education teachers in Pennsylvania is $12.43 an hour, or a shade under $26,000 a year. This level of pay covers only about three-quarters of the basic cost of living – food, shelter, health care, transportation – in Philadelphia. In some western counties, that figure dips to around 50%.
In a survey of 3,400 early ed workers across Pennsylvania, three out of five reported a surprise $400 expense would send their household budgets into a tailspin. Even though they work full-time, many said they need SNAP food benefits and Medicaid to get by. Fully half said they did not expect to be in the same job, at the same center, in five years. No wonder studies estimate the national shortfall or early ed teachers is 110,000 and growing.
Unlike many who responded to the Children First survey, we don’t plan on going anywhere. We want to stay where we are; we love the kids we get to help and relish the relationships we build with their families. We love making a difference in a child’s future.
But we also must balance that happiness with a constant financial struggle. One of us has a master’s in education, and 23 years experience. The other has a bachelor’s and is newer to the work. One of us has three kids of her own, with one looking at college, another eager to play travel sports (whew … expensive!) and the youngest still needing $1,300 worth of child care a month. The other of us works second jobs, sells stuff online and at flea markets and maxes out credit cards – but still sometimes runs out of money before the month ends. She almost never takes a vacation day, because she has to save her time off to take care of a sick mother.
Here’s a finding from the survey that came as no surprise to us: The typical early ed teacher holding a college degree gets better pay, but not enough to pay off the student loans she piled up getting that degree. The second jaw of this financial vise is that the tuition early ed centers charge is usually higher than the annual tuition in the Pennsylvania state university system. So, the centers where we work would have a hard time raising their tuition to pay us a living wage.
The support for fair wages for early childhood educators must come from our commonwealth.
Our state’s new governor just introduced his first proposed budget. We’re happy to see he didn’t ignore us totally. The proposal ups the funding for the Pre-K Counts and Head Start programs by about 10% ($30 million). But his focus is on increasing the number of slots, not reducing families’ costs, or raising our deeply inadequate pay.
As educators, we do know a little bit about basic math and logic. So, a question for our leaders in Harrisburg: What does a theoretical increase in the number of slots matter if you’re not going to pay enough to retain or attract qualified teachers to teach those kids?
Perhaps you’re not all that moved by our personal financial struggles. But please know this: Shortfalls in pre-k slots and hours of operation also spawn severe harm to the state’s businesses in the form of worker absences, productivity losses and turnover. A new ReadyNation report found that child care breakdowns cost our commonwealth $6.65 billion (yes, with a B). That, in turn, costs the state nearly $600 million in annual tax revenue, the study found. That figure, by the way, is more than double what the state spent this fiscal year to support Pre-K Counts and Head Start.
We hope our state lawmakers will at the very least endorse, if not increase, Gov. Shapiro’s proposed allocation for early childhood education.
Gov. Shapiro is also proposing a $66.7 million increase for Child Care Works in this year’s budget. We hope our legislators will go above and beyond that because this amount only keeps up with inflation. It will do nothing to stem the quality and turnover crises, nor will it ease the financial struggles we cope with every day.
If we could, we’d like to have those elected officials spend a day – just one, in our classrooms, to see what it takes to be a good early childhood educator for 20 children. What we do is not, definitely not just babysitting. We are educators, who help young children develop cognitively, physically, emotionally and academically – with benefits to themselves and society that last as long as they live. We are qualified and we do quality work.
We deserve to be able to make a decent, living wage doing it.
A couple of weeks ago, we spoke to our lawmakers from the Northeast about what we are going through, the challenges we face and our commitment to our children. We urge our fellow educators to do the same with their representatives.
Our political leaders need to hear from us about what is really happening on the ground. That’s why we’re telling our story and asking our home state to invest in us, so we can educate its children. ••
Milagros Battiti is an early educator KinderAcademy and Adria Godfrey is an early educator at SPIN, both child care providers in the Northeast.