Liberty Cajayon loves her job at Peninsula Family Service in San Mateo, but she doesn't plan to stay in the early childhood field because of the pay. (Photo by Zaidee Stavely/EdSource)

When a preschool teacher at a San Mateo center began to struggle to interact with children, supervisors became concerned. The reason for the teacher’s drop in performance?

She was hungry.

“Our teachers are having to make choices between rent and food and getting to work,” said Heather Cleary, CEO at Peninsula Family Service, which runs nine centers for low-income children in San Mateo County. “Some of our children come with a lot of trauma and for our teachers to also have their own trauma that they’re bringing to work makes it really challenging to provide a quality learning environment.”

Preschool teachers are six times more likely to live in poverty than K-12 teachers, according to a recent report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley and the Economic Policy Institute. While Gov. Gavin Newsom has committed to expanding and improving early childhood education in California, a plan to increase pay for early-education teachers is missing from the 2019-20 budget.

The low pay not only affects quality of care, but also directly impacts how many children can be served. Only 1 in 9 low-income children in the state who were eligible for subsidized care were enrolled in full-time programs in 2017. Experts say part of the problem is there aren’t enough people becoming preschool or child care teachers, or they’re leaving only a few years after they started.

One way to improve pay at centers that serve low-income children is to change the way California subsidizes child care.

California has two different ways of paying for early education for low-income children. Some centers have direct contracts with the state to enroll a certain number of low-income children each year. These centers receive a flat rate from the state for each child, based on age and special needs. Other centers and family child-care homes do not have direct contracts with the state, but can enroll children who qualify for subsidized child care through a voucher system. These centers are paid different rates, which vary by county, based on how much child care costs in each region.

Advocates and child care providers have been pushing for the state to tie all rates to the actual market cost in each county and pay more to centers that provide higher quality care, such as more teachers and fewer children in each classroom or requiring lead teachers to take college courses in early childhood education. Two bills currently in the Legislature, SB 174 and AB 125, would address several of these issues. A third, AB 378, would allow child care providers who operate out of their own homes to bargain collectively for higher pay.

Peninsula Family Service’s Child Development Center in San Mateo now offers snacks to make sure teachers have something to eat, but like many other child care providers across California, the nonprofit organization still struggles to attract and retain teachers.

Liberty Cajayon is one of the teachers now in the infant room. On a recent morning, she called to a 17-month-old girl named Amy, who pushed herself up on wobbly legs and toddled toward her with a big smile.

Witnessing milestones like little Amy taking some of her first steps is what Cajayon loves most about working in child care. She has worked at the child care center for two years, while also studying full-time to earn a B.A. in Child Development at San Francisco State University. But even after she earns that degree, Cajayon doesn’t think she can stay in the field. It just doesn’t pay enough.

“It’s not even enough for me to live on my own. I still live with my parents,” said Cajayon. “I’m barely paying for my own car payments, I’m barely paying for my own bills. At 27, it feels so unattainable. I feel like I would have to break my back working two jobs just so I could pay my rent.”

When teachers like Cajayon leave the field, it’s a struggle for child care providers to replace them.

“While all this talk in Sacramento has been about expanding slots, I can’t even consider that as a strategy until I get more reimbursement,” Cleary said. Instead of opening more classrooms, she has had to leave classrooms empty for months at a time when children moved to the next age group because she can’t find teachers to staff them, which means she can’t enroll more children during those months.

Other child care administrators across the state face similar challenges. Wu Yee Children’s Services in San Francisco always has between 12 and 15 of their 120 teacher positions open, according to CEO Monica Walters. Go Kids, which operates child care centers in Santa Clara, San Benito, Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, has a hard time finding teachers, particularly in high-cost areas.

“If I’m asking for employees out of San Jose, we can put an ad in the paper, but nobody applies, at the rates we’re able to pay,” said Go Kids Executive Director Larry Drury. He said Go Kids pays between $17.50 and $21 an hour.

Drury, Walters, Cleary and several other providers said there is no question they would use higher reimbursement rates to raise teachers’ wages.

“Obviously, we can’t recruit and retain, attract quality educators, educators with degrees, which is what we want, on the salaries that are generated from a compensation model that is so inequitable,” Walters said.

Still, Gov. Newsom and the Legislature chose not to fund increased rates for subsidized child care centers in the 2019-20 budget. Kris Perry, senior adviser to the governor on implementation of early childhood development initiatives, said child care and preschool teachers need to be paid more, but it might make more sense to increase rates after a master plan is in place to improve quality.

“We don’t want to keep putting money into a system that isn’t doing everything it can,” Perry said. “There’s a reimbursement rate question but there’s also a quality question.”

Proponents of SB 174 and AB 125 say that by reforming the rate system, California has an opportunity to incentivize higher quality early care. Currently, because of the two different kinds of rates, the state actually pays higher rates to some centers that accept vouchers, even though they have more children in each classroom, lower education requirements for teachers and no required curriculum, than it pays centers that have to meet higher quality standards.

“We’re asked to do more for less money and keep higher quality standards and yet we’re paid at a lower level,” Walters said.

Even centers that have rates tied to the regional cost don’t always receive enough funding to cover the extra cost of providing developmentally appropriate care for different ages. For example, the Child Development Consortium of Los Angeles runs several child care centers that have separate toddler classrooms for children who are between 18 months and 3 years old, with more adults, fewer children and higher cost than their preschool classrooms for 3- and 4-year-olds. But when a child turns 2, the state pays the same amount for them as they would for a 3-year-old in a preschool classroom. Executive director Lisa Wilkin said one of the centers she runs charges $1,250 for its toddler program and another charges $1,325, but California only reimburses them for $1,124.28 for 2-year-olds. One center had to simply stop accepting vouchers, while the other absorbed the extra cost.

“These are low-income people. They don’t have an extra $24 dollars a month and honestly, I’d rather them buy groceries or something with it,” Wilkin said.

Though funding was not included in the 2019-20 budget, advocates are hopeful that the bills will pass and help lay the groundwork for simplifying a complicated system of subsidized care.

“This administration is the early education administration and I think that presents a lot of additional opportunities,” said Amanda Dickey, director of intergovernmental and legal affairs for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association. “So I am optimistic that at the end of the day, we will have reimbursement rate reform.”

Story originally published by EdSource.