Earlier this month, as thousands of educators and advocates for young children gathered in Baltimore for the annual 2022 National Head Start Conference, participants exchanged first-hand reports and anecdotes from the field, sharing what has been for them over the past couple of years and what it is as now.
Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association (NHSA), a nonprofit organization for the promotion and professional support of Head Start, has heard stories of how difficult it is now to be in preschool. And it’s not because of COVID-19 – at least not directly. This is because many programs have found themselves in agony personnel crisisdue to high turnover and low wages, two problems facing the profession long before the pandemic that made it almost impossible to constantly fill classrooms and open doors.
The NHSA surveyed about 900 conference attendees, and the results published in a recently published report—Support what Sheridan has heard that is being passed on between teachers: the labor crisis in Head Start programs has reached an “alarming” level, which is primarily due to chronically low compensation and grim working conditions.
About 260,000 educators work in the federal-funded Head Start program, which along with Early Head Start provides early care and education for more than 800,000 infants, toddlers and children from low-income families. Like the wider early childhood workforce, Head Start employees are mostly women, and predominantly colored, Sheridan says. And their average wages make them some of the lowest paid professionals in the country, ranging from $ 11 to $ 12 an hour.
The wage problem in this area has been around for a long time, but now that school systems and private sector employers are raising wages to be more competitive in the job market and keep up with rising inflation, many of the preschoolers have vacated their jobs for better opportunities. As a result, childcare workers and preschoolers left behind suffer.
According to participants surveyed at an NHSA conference in early May, about 30 percent of full-time positions in Head Start programs are currently vacant, and 90 percent of respondents said they closed classrooms in their programs permanently or temporarily due to staff shortages. .
“I think what the programs were supposed to do was particularly disturbing,” Sheridan says. “And it feels like the end is not in sight. This is the biggest concern of all this. “
The vast majority – 85 percent – of respondents said that staff turnover is now higher than in the usual year, a trend that has persisted in preschool education since the beginning of the pandemic.
The main reason why respondents identified this problem with hiring and maintenance is compensation, followed by difficult working conditions and the availability of better professional opportunities.
Many of the leading teachers of Head Start programs, for example, will be qualified to work in the public school system K-12, where vacancies abound and pay is much higher.
The average salary of a primary school teacher in the United States is more than $ 60,000 per year compared to Head Start teachers, whose hourly wage is about $ 34,000 per year.
Even educators who love the field of early childhood and are committed to working with young children find it difficult to justify these figures.
But it’s not just the school system. The West Virginia Head Start leader, who completed the NHSA poll, wrote that a popular gas station network called Sheetz could offer almost twice as much as Head Start could in its area.
“Our minimum wage in the state is $ 8.75, which is also a typical starting salary for Head Start employees,” the West Virginia leader wrote. “A full-time job of $ 8.75 is well below the federal poverty line. Not surprisingly, workers choose other options that better provide for their own family. At the local level, Schitz pays $ 15 an hour with a $ 3,000 subscription bonus, and school districts pay teachers twice as much as we can afford to pay. ”
An NHSA report notes that many entry-level private sector jobs now start at $ 15 an hour. The Target retail chain now offers a starting salary of $ 24 an hour. Costco also pays nearly half of its employees more than $ 25 an hour. How can the industry compete with this wage if it does not consider a panacea for the whole sector?
“We need major system repairs and very concrete investments and actions,” Sheridan said. “Otherwise we will lose the gold standard, which is Head Start. We are very proud to be fulfilling this role [as gold standard]but if we can’t keep classes open because we can’t pay enough staff … we sound the alarm ”.
“This is something that can be honestly decided, and what we think it should be,” he adds, but notes that he sees no way out of this crisis, which does not involve more federal funding for Head Start and, indeed, a wider field of preschool education. Sheridan and his colleagues are asking Congress to approve an additional $ 2.5 billion a year for Head Start to address systemic issues, including underpayments.
“We can’t fix the system without extra dollars,” Sheridan said. “We can rearrange the chairs, but it’s impossible to make it an attractive job without expecting people to do it for the good of their heart.”
If the decision does not come, Sheridan predicts that Head Start will soon serve far fewer children in the U.S. and disappear from entire communities altogether.
He explains that the success of Head Start – backed by research – is based on its workforce, and unfortunately people will soon learn about it the hard way.
“You can have a great curriculum and modern institutions,” he says, “but if you don’t have a workforce that feels valued and compensated, Head Start won’t be able to make the impact we’ve had for years.”