By Eliza Shapiro
As City Hall gears up for the second year of its massive pre-kindergarten program, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration will have to reckon with mounting pressure from community-based organizations about salary and benefit disparities that have long plagued the city’s early education programs.
C.B.O. providers, who operate pre-kindergarten classes in facilities that are not public schools, stayed relatively quiet during the lead-up to the pre-K rollout last fall, careful not to hedge their enthusiasm about the expansion of early childhood education. But they are now voicing significant concern about pay discrepancies, which can stretch to tens of thousands of dollars, between community center teachers and staff and their Department of Education counterparts.
Some of the administration's most reliable pre-K allies, rather than the charter school advocates and reform leaders who are regularly critical of the mayor's policies, are leading the push to address salary disparities.
“We have the tale of two school systems right here in the early childhood field,” said Nancy Wackstein, executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, which oversees 38 community organizations, many of which offer pre-K.
Salary and benefit disparities, she said, will be “a profound challenge going forward.”
D.O.E. pre-K teachers can make up to $91,000 with a masters’ degree and 20 years of experience. C.B.O. teachers with identical credentials can earn up to $50,000. D.O.E. teachers are represented by the United Federation of Teachers, and are eligible for new raises and benefits in the new U.F.T. contract.
After a relatively smooth launch in September, which was hardly guaranteed, the administration has repeatedly stressed that the pre-K roll-out would be a two-year climb, with any initial hiccups addressed in year two.
The administration filled over 53,000 spots this year, and is planning to extend the program to 70,000 four-year-olds this fall, with C.B.O.s making up more than 60 percent of the city's 1,700 pre-K offerings.
If C.B.O. providers and advocates get their way, the administration will hone in on salary disparities, which they consider to be perhaps the most substantial issue going forward.
C.B.O. teachers typically belong to either District Council 1707’s Local 205, which represents daycare employees, or the union’s Local 95, which represents Head Start employees. Some C.B.Os have both Local 205 and Local 95 employees.
Benefit disparities are another major issue, providers and advocates say. C.B.O. teachers typically work longer days, as centers are open into the evening hours to accommodate working parents, and teach year-round. Their public school peers usually get summers off, teach until mid-afternoon, and have better health insurance plans provided by the U.F.T.
The issue of pay disparity has come up repeatedly in recent months in an early childhood education task force run out of City Hall, according to several members of the task force. The group has been meeting regularly to oversee the pre-K rollout, and is expected to report its findings to de Blasio during the last week of January. The task force is run by deputy mayor Lilliam Barrios-Paoli and Administration for Children’s Services commissioner Gladys Carrion to develop recommendations for the city’s early childhood education.
The administration moved to address the problem, which long predates de Blasio, last April, pledging $16.9 million of the $300 million dedicated pre-K funds to increase starting salaries for certified teachers in C.B.O.s.
Starting salaries for certified teachers at C.B.O.s with bachelors degrees were raised from about $35,000 to $44,000, and starting pay for certified teachers with masters degrees to $50,000. That's still slightly below the starting salary rate, $46,000, for D.O.E. teachers.
Advocates say the increases were helpful for child care employees, but haven’t been sufficient to accommodate the vast expansion of teaching staff.
David Nocenti, executive director of the Union Settlement Association in Harlem, which offers pre-K, pointed out that the increases didn’t account for more experienced teachers, or the many uncertified teaching assistants and staff members. And many Head Start teachers with bachelors degrees were already making the same amount under their union contract.
“This is a single, high-quality system where four-year-olds are learning new multi-syllable vocabulary words, exploring through interactive science experiments and gaining critical interpersonal skills while making friends and engaging in meaningful play,” Devora Kaye, a D.O.E. spokeswoman, said in a statement. “We have made investments in training, given organizations new recruitment tools, and continue to provide ongoing resources to attract and retain the best teachers. Across every classroom we had a qualified lead instructor, and this will continue as we expand to new neighborhoods across the city. This is part of our profound commitment to giving every child a great early education, of which pre-K is the beginning."
Still, providers say they’ve lost students and some of their best teachers to D.O.E. schools due to the salary issues over the last year, as the scale of the pre-K roll-out has in some cases aggravated existing retention issues.
“What has typically happened in many cases is now exacerbated,” said Maria Collier, director of the Cypress Hills Child Care Corporation, a C.B.O. in Brooklyn. Pointing out that many C.B.O.s, like her’s, provide pre-K in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, Collier said the salary disparities can lead to loss of teachers, putting low-income students at a greater disadvantage.
“Teachers will gain experience or study while they are at a C.B.O., and as soon as they get their credentials they will go to the D.O.E.,” Collier said. "It’s totally understandable because many of them graduate owing lots of money, but it puts the C.B.O. at an extreme disadvantage because you cannot compete with the D.O.E," she said.
Collier said she was lucky to lose only a few teachers to the D.O.E., this summer, but she said her center was “scrambling” just before the first day of school to hit enrollment targets, as parents tried to game the system by applying to as many programs as possible, creating long and unreliable waitlists.
Another pre-K provider who asked not to be identified said her program lost several of its best teachers to the D.O.E., along with students whose parents had been promised that enrolling at a district pre-K spot would help guarantee Kindergarten admission at the same school.
“Some of our agencies really have seen an exodus of staff,” said Gregory Bender, a policy analyst at United Neighborhood Houses.
Attrition has been a long-standing issue for C.B.Os, Collier and other providers said, but more students, teachers and programs have made the scope of the issue clearer.
“What the [rollout] revealed in stark terms was that the city has to have a better integrated early childhood system,” Bender said.
Different insurance plans for C.B.O. and D.O.E. staff have been another major disincentive for community-based teachers and staff, providers say.
Bender said as many as 60 percent of staff at some of the pre-K programs United Neighborhood Houses oversees have opted out of their health insurance plans due to the cost. Collier said several members of her staff, particularly custodial and kitchen staff, have also had to opt out of insurance plans.
The rollout has also shed light on another subtle layer of disparity that providers say is causing tension in their centers: salary differences between C.B.O. teachers providing pre-K to four-year-olds, and teachers who work with children 3 years old and under.
While C.B.O. teachers with master’s degrees and 20 years of experience who provide pre-K instruction can earn up to $50,000, child care providers who work with younger children earn less, only up to $39,500 at Cypress Hills, Collier said.
“When there is salary disparity within your own center, it magnifies dissatisfaction,” Collier said.
And while all parents of children in C.B.Os pay a basic fee for services, typically around $60 or $70, parents of younger children pay a larger amount.
The providers and advocates, most of whom have been longtime supporters of de Blasio and his early childhood goals, say they are grateful to have a mayor who recognizes the importance of pre-K, and all praised the initial rollout of the program.
The first year of the rollout was about “prying the door open,” said Nancy Kolben, the executive director of the Center for Children's Initiatives and a member of de Blasio's pre-K implementation working group. But, she added, “we have these two systems that should be aligned but aren’t there yet.”