Christine Stuart photo
Sen. Beth Bye, Merrill Gay and Karen Rainville (Christine Stuart photo)

Twenty-five years after the first National Child Care Staffing Study, a new study found that not much has changed.

“The folks taking care of children are still paid very poorly,” Merrill Gay, executive director of the Connecticut Early Childhood Alliance, said Tuesday.

The study from the University of California-Berkeley found that despite a nearly two-fold increase in costs to parents for early childhood services, childcare workers have experienced no increase in real earnings.

The study found those who work as preschool teachers have fared somewhat better, as their wages have increased 15 percent since 1997. However, childcare workers still earn less than adults who take care of animals and barely more than fast food cooks. The median hourly wage for a teacher working with children from birth to five years old was $10.60 an hour in 2012. The median hourly wage jumped to $16 an hour in school-sponsored pre-kindergarten and $11.90 in Head Start programs.

Karen Rainville, executive director of the Connecticut Association for the Education of Young Children, said the state hasn’t addressed, in any meaningful way, compensation for early childhood teachers.

The state has mandated that by 2015 at least 50 percent of the state-subsidized early childhood programs have teachers with bachelor’s degrees. However, the degree required didn’t come with any incentive to increase their pay.

Rainville said what’s going to happen is teachers will earn their degrees supported largely through state scholarship dollars and will take those degrees to work in a field “that can pay them a salary comparable to their education level.”

Rainville said she spoke with the director of a childcare center who recently had nine teachers get their degrees through the state scholarship program and all nine are now working somewhere else. One of the nine is bartending because “she can, quite frankly, make more money doing that,” Rainville said.

“Given what we know about brain research and how important the first five years of life are to children, we need to fix this problem,” Rainville said. “Low wages lead to high turnover and low quality.”

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who is a former director of an early childhood program, agreed with Rainville.

She said the state needs to stop focusing on creating slots for children and start focusing on making sure they are quality slots. She said the focus should be on fewer slots and using more of the money to pay the teachers a living wage.

“It’s really about the impact that low wages have on the outcomes of children in Connecticut,” Bye said.

“Simply having pre-school isn’t enough. It has to be high-quality. So how do we shift the conversation from the race for slots to a race for high-quality slots?” Bye said. “I think it’s a slow walk.”

She said 25 years after the first study was completed, she wishes she could say the state was doing much better, “but we’re not.”

Bye described the situation as a crisis.

“We’ve got to find a way to get the dollars down to the classroom,” Bye said.

The University of California-Berkeley report found that the Department of Defense sets teachers’ salaries in their early care programs at a pay equivalent to those of other DOD employees with similar training and experience. As a result the pay for these teachers has increased by 76 percent and turnover has plummeted.

Earlier this year, daycare workers and their newly formed union were able to negotiate a 12-percent increase in their pay over the next four years.

While the increase for providers paid under the Care 4 Kids program helps, Gay said 3 percent per year only keeps pace with inflation and is not something that’s going to make a difference as far as wages and closing the “enormous gap between what childcare workers currently earn and what equally credentialed staff in other occupations.”

Bye said there have been studies done that show the greatest predictor of child outcomes is teacher wages.

What’s happening in Connecticut is there are requirements for increased degrees without commensurate increase in reimbursement rate. Bye said that’s the problem the state and stakeholders has to solve.