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Rallies Urge Higher Pay for Preschool Teachers, Workers


CULVER CITY — Preschool teachers and child-care workers rank somewhere below animal groomers and grocery baggers when it comes to salaries and health benefits, according to a new report from the Child Care Employee Project, an Oakland research and advocacy group that calls for changes in the way America cares for its young.

Indeed, the subsistence-level pay has led to wry jokes making the rounds these days among those who care for your children:

Question: Why did the preschool teacher cross the road?

Answer: To get to her other job!

And the problem is getting worse.

"We see a tremendous crisis," said Gay Macdonald, president of the 500-member North Bay chapter of the Southern California Assn. for the Education of Young Children, which encompasses the Westside. "Already low wages are eroding at a time when more parents are working and people are leaving the (child-care) field at a rate of about 50% a year."

To draw attention to the importance of quality care for young children and fair pay for those who provide it, teachers and parents are staging festivals and demonstrations this month. On Saturday, designated as Super Saturday, nearly 300 children tumbled, sang, heard stories, painted and snacked at Lindberg Park in Culver City, the free activities provided by more than two dozen preschools, child care centers and public policy groups.

And today at 4 p.m. at the Federal Building at 11000 Wilshire, child-care advocates will rally as part of a nationwide Worthy Wage Day, with buttons, banners and literature. They are calling for a minimum average wage of $10 an hour and comprehensive health care.

The recently released report, titled the "National Child Care Staffing Study Revisited," is a follow-up to a 1988 report that exposed what it termed the "minimally adequate and deteriorating quality" of the nation's child care system. The study linked this poor quality to the inadequate pay earned by those who teach young children.

That report found that children deposited in centers with poorly prepared teachers and high turnover rates spend most of their day in aimless activities, not engaged with teachers, other children or learning materials, and--not surprisingly--tend to show delays in language and social development.

The second look at more than 200 licensed, full-day centers in five major metropolitan areas reports that the situation isn't getting better.

For example:

* Despite infusions of federal money, there has been no real improvement from the 1988 average hourly wage of $5.35 for classroom teaching staffs, which means an annual income of about $9,000. Although the highest-paid teachers' wages went up 66 cents an hour to $8.85 last year, salaries for the lowest-paid assistants, the fastest-growing segment of the child-care work force, have actually dropped 8 cents, to $5.08.

Teachers still earn only half as much as comparably educated workers in other fields. The state requires some college education for child-care center workers; many teachers have bachelor's and even master's degrees in education.

* Despite teachers' exposure to illness on the job, the overwhelming majority of centers offer limited health insurance or none. Only 27% of the centers provide fully paid health insurance, and a third of those do not cover assistant teachers.

* Staff turnover remains high, even in a period of high unemployment. The study found that 70% of those interviewed in 1988 had left their jobs, with the lowest-paid the most likely to have left. Turnover between 1991 and 1992 dropped to 26%--still nearly three times the annual turnover rate reported by other U.S. companies and well above the nearly 6% turnover rate of public school teachers.

Ironically, it is the middle class that gets the poorest quality of care, according to one of the study's principal investigators, Carollee Howes, professor of education at UCLA.

Howes said low-income parents benefit from subsidized care, and high-income families pay only a small percentage of their income for expensive care. "The middle group gets the poorest-quality care. They are never subsidized. And 'for profit' centers (which the study found to be of lower quality than nonprofit groups) tend to market themselves to middle-income parents," she said.

On the Westside, Macdonald said, tuition for infants and toddlers runs about $600 a month, and for preschoolers (2- to 5-year-olds who are toilet-trained), $525 to $550. Half-day care is declining except among the rich, who may already have a housekeeper and want their child to have a group experience for part of the day.

Teachers average about $9 an hour; aides about $6. Very few Westside centers, unless they are church-related or corporate-sponsored, offer health benefits for teachers.

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