Crain’s: Teacher slipping into poverty delivers a lesson in fairness

Early childhood educators need salary parity

By Nadia Alexander

I am proud to be an early childhood educator. Every day, I’m helping to shape the minds of New York City’s children, many of whom come from low-income communities where educational opportunities are key to breaking the cycle of poverty. Teaching is truly my calling and life-long passion.

But even though I perform a critically important job, I myself am living in poverty. I’m on the losing end of a long-standing system that divides community-based pre-school teachers from those working for the Department of Education—a system that the city must end.

As a head teacher at Magical Years Early Childhood Center in Brooklyn, my monthly paycheck is only $100 more than my monthly rent—meaning that my teenage son and I are barely scraping by, and often have to choose between food and rent. It’s hard enough for me to build up savings for my son’s college tuition, but I sometimes find myself having to use those funds or rely on credit cards to supplement my paycheck in order to cover all my bills.

It’s not just me. This is true of all early childhood educators at community-based organizations, who haven’t had a raise in a decade and many of whom are on government assistance and unable to afford health insurance. Like me, most of the staff making meager wages at community-based early childhood centers are minority women.

Yet educators with the same jobs, credentials, and training at Department of Education programs make far higher wages than those of us in CBOs who are contracted by the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. Both sets of educators are doing the same important work, and deserve the same compensation—especially when earning less means taking home poverty-level wages.

 Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent decision to raise wages to $15 an hour for nonprofit workers is an important step that will thankfully improve the lives of the lowest paid workers at community-based early childhood centers. But it will not affect the majority of staff, including directors, assistant teachers, and head teachers like me. Our salaries will continue to lag behind those of our Department of Education counterparts, unless action is taken. It’s time that early childhood educators get salary parity.

The ones who truly lose out in this system are the low-income children we serve. Even though teachers like me are dedicated to our profession, many of us are forced to seek other employment when the struggles of living paycheck-to-paycheck get to be too much. That means that talented educators are leaving the children who need them most, or not even applying in the first place.

All children in New York City deserve access to high-quality early education, especially because the earliest years are the most critical for a child’s mind. To ensure that level of quality, programs must be able to attract and retain the best teachers and staff. Fair compensation is a good way to start. The only way to provide children with gifted educators is to offer sufficient pay.

We’re taking a stand to create a level playing field for all early educators. Program directors and advocates from more than 100 organizations signed a letter calling on the city to create salary parity, and we have sent hundreds of letters and tweets echoing this call. Recently, we made our voices heard on the steps of City Hall. We know that the city wants to see early education programs flourish, so we’re counting on our elected officials to take this crucial step.

Though I have a son, I consider all the children I teach to be my own. I am there to set them on a path of lifelong learning, to encourage them, and to keep them happy and healthy. I teach because it fulfills me. The last thing I want to do is give up a career that I love, to work somewhere else simply because it would allow me to struggle a little less. But that’s exactly what so many community-based educators have done. They were left with no other options. Our communities cannot afford to lose any more.

Children are the future of our city, so let’s invest in them by providing a fair livelihood for their teachers. Salary parity for New York City’s early childhood educators can’t come soon enough.

Nadia Alexander is a head teacher at Magical Years Early Childhood Center in Brooklyn. 

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