Two jobs, no benefits: Can Illinois rescue its early childhood workforce?

Aerial-style view of the top of four young children’s heads as they practice writing the letters of the alphabet using colored pencils from a shared container in the middle of the four.
A new report shows that a startling 32% of teachers in Illinois’ licensed centers leave their jobs every two years, roughly the same percentage as a similar study two years prior. (Youngrae Kim for Chalkbeat)

Preschool teacher Devon Jefferson starts work at a child care center each morning at 6 a.m., clocks in for a second job as a home health care aide in the afternoon, and attends night classes several evenings a month. 

After two decades as an early childhood educator, she’s tired and frustrated.

“We are overworked and so underpaid, and it is so not right,” said Jefferson, whose hourly wages at the child care center add up to $40,000 annually. She took a second job because she is not offered health benefits and owes student loan debt. 

These days, Jefferson is weighing her options — and eyeing a switch to a public school down the street. After all, it pays its freshly minted new hires with one year experience $16,000 or so more than what she’s earning at 43. Plus they get benefits.

Early education is a field marked by low pay and high turnover — a state staffing survey shows that a startling 32% of teachers in Illinois’ licensed centers leave their jobs every two years, roughly the same percentage as a similar study two years prior. But Illinois’ efforts to stabilize the field have, until now, mostly come in fits and starts, falling victim to limp state early education budgets, little-to-no accountability, and the reality of a diffuse system made up of everything from private businesses to nonprofit centers to single-operator homes. 

Even this year brings a question mark, with another flat budget for early education programs in Illinois. But insiders say they are still cautiously optimistic that some promising solutions are taking root, courtesy of newfound political will and an influx in federal emergency funds. 

One of the most promising efforts appears to be a consortium tasked with designing faster, better ways to help experienced child care workers finish bachelor’s degrees. A product of the high-speed spring legislative session, that compromise bill — which is now headed to the governor’s desk — presses four-year colleges and universities to participate in a wide-ranging consortium with a lofty target: propelling about 20% of registered child care professionals who don’t have four-year degrees toward them by 2024.

The group will help steer $110 million of federal emergency dollars across three higher education organizations to create scholarships, set up loan forgiveness programs, and design more flexible courses. And that should help jumpstart other conversations, said Cristina Pacione-Zayas, an early educator and state senator whose efforts behind a workforce bill spurred the consortium’s creation.

“People understand the compensation issue, but they don’t yet feel it,” said Pacione-Zayas, whose bill requires universities to grant automatic junior status to community college degree holders and mandates bi-annual legislative reports about enrollees and persistence. “We have to push them to do something about it.”

Previous efforts to help experienced workers earn bachelor’s degrees did not go far enough and weren’t really practical for women juggling full-time jobs. Teresa Ramos, the vice president of public policy at the advocacy group Illinois Action for Children, said the consortium effort must really scrutinize what experienced workers need to be successful.  

“The challenge we heard is that people want to stay in the field and keep their job. When you are working full-time, you can’t take a college class between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. — and that’s when many four-years offer their classes,” she said. Some of the strict mandates in the consortium bill could pressure colleges and universities to rethink how they set up courses for current workers, she added. “That could shift policy — something that might not just be good for early childhood but other fields.”  

New data from the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies show the scope of the problem.

In Illinois, the median hourly wage for a full-time teacher in an early childhood classroom is $13 an hour, or $27,040 a year, based on March 2020 data from across Illinois’ licensed child care facilities. Two-thirds of those teachers had at least an associate degree, and nearly half of them were women of color — but fewer than half were offered health insurance. 

Even across the field, there were big disparities, with teachers in infant and toddler classrooms earning the least. 

That’s why Ireta Gasner, vice president of Illinois policy at Start Early, said she’d like to see the conversation shift next to pay — and how to build a more sustainable pay scale for workers who have valuable experience and training with young children. 

Some states have been reluctant to use one-time, federal emergency dollars for across-the-board pay increases, but Gasner argues that’s a missed opportunity. “While the federal dollars clearly can be used for bonuses and related compensation for work during the pandemic, they can also be used for overall compensation increases. And we need to move to ensuring that increased compensation is built into our system in an ongoing way.”

She says there are other possible incentives coming from Washington. The Biden administration has pledged more investment in child care and other programs that would help children and families. In Illinois, a new centralized early childhood agency likely would oversee that spending should it come through; until a state funding commission recommended a more streamlined approach earlier this year, programs for young children were spread across three separate agencies and fragmented.

For Tamara Locke, such changes are overdue, but unless they directly boost pay, she worries they could fall short. Locke is 44 and earns $19 an hour as the assistant director of a child care center on the North Side. She earned her bachelor’s degree this month, she says proudly, after more than 15 years of starts and stops across multiple higher education institutions, including for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. 

“it was a long process,” she said, and one interrupted not once, but twice, by family tragedy. A beloved brother’s death from gun violence derailed her at one point; credit transfers between institutions complicated her plan. 

Ultimately, she earned her degree. She’s hoping to use it to open her own center.

To Locke, the answer to Illinois’ workforce problem is simple: “Pay us what we’re worth.”

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