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Advocates: better pre-k begins with better pay

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Author: 
Nott, Robert
Publication Date: 
19 Jul 2018
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State government leaders often tout increasing investments in early childhood programs. But experts and advocates say they’ve continued to overlook a significant barrier to improving and expanding such initiatives: poorly paid educators.

Without higher wages for workers, several people told lawmakers gathered for a Thursday forum, the state doesn’t have much of a chance of growing its high-quality child care and prekindergarten programs, which studies have shown can yield economic and social benefits to communities while also boosting children’s academic achievement.

Low wages make it difficult to attract and retain child care and preschool workers.

“The key to high-quality childhood care and education are the people providing the services,” said Caitlin McLean of the University of California, Berkeley, who was one of an array of analysts and educators who spoke during the joint meeting of the Legislative Education Study Committee and Legislative Finance Committee at the Hotel Santa Fe.

McLean recommended the state create a database on child care and preschool workers, track the turnover rate and conduct a survey of pre-K educators.

Others who spoke at the event, including Jennifer Sallee, who oversees the early childhood education program at Santa Fe Community College, and Catron Allred, director of education for Central New Mexico Community College, said more could be done to strengthen professional development and raise education standards for early child educators.

But they, too, spoke of the need for higher wages.

“You’ve put a lot of investment into early childhood programs,” Sallee told lawmakers. “Protect your workforce.”

The daylong workshop was intended to focus on ways to beef up support for early childhood services.

The state has appropriated about $267 million for all kinds of early childhood programs this fiscal year, with $64 million targeted specifically at pre-K, state data show.

But that money isn’t doing enough to raise salaries to a level needed to ensure early childhood workers can “put food on the table,” McLean said.

She cited a recent report by UC-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment that found the median pay for pre-K teachers in New Mexico is $13 an hour — about $20 less per hour than kindergarten teachers earn.

As a result, she said, “Qualified individuals will not be attracted to this work … or stay in this work.”

While the salary gap exists for pre-K workers nationwide, she said, some states are finding ways to address it. Massachusetts, for instance, has appropriated funding for child care subsidies, she said, while Washington state has developed a task force to recommend solutions to lawmakers by the year’s end.

The problem is not new.

A joint report by the U.S. Department of Education and Health and Human Services Department in 2016 said preschool teachers and day care providers earn less than janitors, tree trimmers and baristas — and far less than educators working in the K-12 public school system.

Whether the recommendations made Thursday will have any influence on the next governor is unclear.

The Democratic nominee, U.S. Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham, has said she wants to draw about $57 million a year for five years from the state’s more than $17 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund to expand early education.

That would require the Legislature to approve a ballot question asking voters to decide on a constitutional amendment allowing the state to pull money from the investment fund. The next general election after the 2019 legislative session is in November 2020. If voters supported the amendment, the funding measure would not take effect until July 1, 2021.

The amendment also might require congressional approval.

The Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, said he would not invest more money in early childhood education until New Mexico’s K-12 public school system is improved.

But Pearce also has said he wants to do more to support teachers.

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Entered Date: 
31 Jul 2018
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