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Teachers who work for community-based organizations deserve equal pay

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Elizabeth McCarthy is the CEO of Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services.

While teachers in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Oklahoma have been striking to protest their low and stagnant wages, New York has been lauded for offering the highest average salaries for teachers in the nation. In fact, most would agree that the powerful United Federation of Teachers (UFT) Union has negotiated a fair contract for teachers in the New York City Department of Education (DOE), with annual salary increases, including a three percent raise scheduled for next month. But if all of our teachers are truly being treated fairly then why are preschool teachers, their students and families planning a rally on the steps of City Hall today? 

Because, in direct contrast to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s admirable dream to make New York City the fairest big city in America, the story behind our early childhood education programming is still a “tale of two cities.”

Universal Pre-K and programs offering universal education for three year-olds draw teachers from two systems: the DOE, and a network of community-based organizations (CBOs). The DOE provides Pre-K classes in New York City public schools during the typical school year – 6.5 hours a day for a little less than ten months. CBOs provide seats in early childhood programs for about 55 percent of all Pre-K and three-year-old participants under very different parameters. These programs operate in communities where families qualify for free or subsidized child care so classrooms operate ten hours a day, twelve months a year. These centers not only provide the UPK and 3-K curricula, they often have additional on-site early intervention, mental health and family support services to address vital community needs – for no additional cost.

Teachers at CBOs are required to have the exact same credentials as those at the DOE yet they work longer days, have a longer school year, and serve a population with arguably much higher needs.  

However they are not represented by the UFT, so they will not be receiving the three percent increase next month that DOE teachers will receive.  

In fact, the starting salary for a teacher with a master’s degree and full certification working for a CBO is about $15,000 less than the starting salary for the DOE.  By their eighth year teaching, the disparity has grown to over $30,000.

It is true, teachers who stay at CBOs tend to see teaching as a calling, not just a job. They are often from the communities in which they teach. They understand education is the best path for children to break out of the economic insecurity in which they are raised and they want to make an impact on the next generation. They also produce excellent results. According to the Citizen’s Committee for Children, during the 2015-16 school year, 93 percent of privately-run early childhood centers scored “good” or “excellent,” compared to only 84 percent of DOE-run sites. DOE sites were also more likely to have “poor” ratings.

But it gets harder and harder for an early childhood teacher to justify staying at a CBO when the DOE offers summers off and some $30,000 more per year in salary.

CBOs suffer incredibly high turnover rates and it can take more than eight months to replace a teacher who accepts a job at the DOE. When teachers leave, CBOs scramble to find substitute teachers, or are forced to close classrooms. When a classroom closes, that means fewer seats for black and brown children growing up in the poorest communities of New York City – the very people the mayor genuinely wanted to help by implementing this program. Students are often forced to move to different centers mid-year, end up having several teachers over the course of a school year, or end up at centers further from their homes, making it more difficult for a parent to drop them off and pick them up every day. Ultimately, the relationship between teacher and student – one of the things that has proven to be so important in early childhood education – is severed, and the divide between the “haves and the have nots” broadens.

In December, almost 50 early childhood education CBOs sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio requesting a meeting to discuss this pressing salary issue and the resulting inevitable decline in program quality. There was no response.

So, we will take to the streets today, filling buses in the South Bronx, East Harlem, Far Rockaway, and Brownsville with teachers bound for the steps of City Hall to ask for raises. They’ll be  accompanied by three and four-year-old children and their parents.

Unfortunately we must now rally for something that should be a given: equal pay for equally credentialed professionals. Because we envision a tale of one united city that offers quality education for three and four-year olds, no matter what their economic status or zip code.

Elizabeth McCarthy is the CEO of Sheltering Arms Children and Family Services.

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