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Crisis Looms for Quality Child Care in the State, Report Says

August 09, 2006|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

California faces a crisis in the availability of quality child care over the next decade with an aging workforce approaching retirement even as demand is rising for experienced teachers, according to a new study.

The report, released Tuesday at a Sacramento news conference, suggests that low salaries and high turnover are dissuading young people from entering the child-care field, which may result in fewer options for parents at a time when more research is touting the benefits of early childhood development.

The study was conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Child Care Employment and the California Child Care Resource and Referral Network with funding from First 5 California, a state agency that uses tobacco tax money for early childhood health and education programs. It is the first comprehensive profile of the more than 130,000 child-care educators who work in 37,366 licensed homes and 8,740 centers.

The typical licensed provider is a woman in her mid-40s who has been caring for children in her home for 10 years; 21% are 55 or older and only 7% are younger than 29.

California's population of children younger than 5 is projected to increase by 14.7% this decade, according to the study. Meanwhile, a quarter of the most experienced teachers who hold a bachelor's degree and work at centers are older than 50.

Many are like Becky Smith, who works at the Sacramento Employment and Training Agency's Head Start center and has been an early childhood education teacher for 25 years. Smith, 45 and a mother of three, said she had been hampered doing the job she loves because of low pay. Before joining the Sacramento center two years ago, none of her employers provided medical, dental or retirement benefits. Smith is now working to get a bachelor's degree in adult education. She said she may have to leave the early childhood field just to secure her future.

"You'd think a person in a job for 25, 30 years, ready to retire, has got a pretty nice little nest egg," said Smith, who attended Tuesday's news conference. "But I've only recently been able to obtain benefits. Prior to working here, any time I needed medical care, it was out of pocket. I'm at a point now thinking maybe I need to get out of this profession and find me a job where I at least can start putting away for the future."

Experts said that early childhood workers suffer from low status and market forces that keep wages low. For instance, if a family cannot afford to pay for quality child care, they will find an unlicensed provider, frequently a relative, who will charge little if anything.

"We have evolved our understanding of early childhood development and the importance of kids having quality preschool, but we haven't updated our vision for teachers," noted UC Berkeley senior researcher and study co-author Marcy Whitebook. "Part of that problem is where the rubber hits the road in terms of cost. Education and training of workers is going to cost more, and we know most families really are constrained in their ability to pay more for care."

Among other findings:

* The average annual salary for a teacher at a child-care center with a bachelor's degree or higher is $38,730, nearly $12,000 less than the average California public school kindergarten teacher.

* The turnover rate for early childhood education teachers is 22%, twice that of public school K-12 teachers.

* Licensed family child-care homes in California serve about 250,000 children, and child-care centers serve about 500,000 children from newborn to age 5.

Kris Perry, California First 5's executive director, said government, foundations and employers must provide more support and incentives to recruit and retain child-care workers. Her agency is investing more than $150 million for continuing education and professional development for workers.

"We say we care a lot about kids in California," Perry said, "but when it really comes down to committing resources to their care, we haven't really figured out how to serve those families."

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