NYC and union officials hail move toward pay parity for pre-K teachers but some worry over educators left out of deal

Hundreds of New York City pre-K teachers could see their pay increased by as much as $20,000 under a deal announced Tuesday by city officials and labor leaders. 

Still unclear is when progress will be made for thousands of pre-K teachers whose pay is lagging and who don’t belong to a union — though city leaders and advocates said the tentative agreement could also set the stage for these teachers to receive a salary boost. Should that come to pass, today’s agreement could be a historic starting point for pay increases across the city’s pre-K landscape, though some are waiting for more details before declaring victory.

At issue is the wide pay gap between teachers who work in community-run preschools — which enroll the bulk of students in the city’s free, universal pre-K program — and those who teach in public school classrooms overseen by the education department and governed by its contract with the United Federation of Teachers. 

Teachers who work in community-run classrooms aren’t considered public employees, but their salaries are largely dependent on public dollars that flow through city contracts with pre-K providers.

On Tuesday, the city announced an agreement with District Council 1707 Local 205 that would steadily boost salaries for 315 pre-K teachers over three years, eventually matching what starting teachers in public schools make. The deal marks a significant win for those teachers, who were among those calling for a strike at community preschools this spring — just as Mayor Bill de Blasio kicked off a bid for president touting universal pre-K as his signature policy achievement.

“We cannot have a system where certified teachers and community-based organizations start out earning thousands of dollars less than those doing the same job in public schools,” said Speaker Corey Johnson, who, along with city council members, pushed to address the inequity in budget negotiations. “Today is setting the path to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.” 

Only a small number of teachers are in line for the largest raises because only those who are certified would be eligible. Those are the very teachers who often jump ship for public school classrooms, where they can earn tens of thousands of dollars more — a trend that many hope the new pay deal will help reverse. 

Another 900 teachers in the local are not certified and they, along with about 3,000 support staffers such as janitors and cooks, stand to earn $1,800 bonuses on top of 2.75% wage increases. 

“No longer will we ever tolerate a system that treats workers like second class citizens in the city of New York. I don’t care if you’re a teacher or you work in a cafeteria,” said Henry Garrido, the executive director of District Council 37, which recently merged with DC 1707. 

Under the agreement, certified teachers with masters and bachelors degrees would see their pay increase every October through 2021. By that date, certified teachers with a master’s degree would make at least $69,000, and certified teachers with a bachelor’s degree would earn about $61,000 — a jump of almost $21,000 and more than $17,000, respectively. 

The union also negotiated reductions in health insurance premiums and copays. Members are expected to vote on the proposal in August. 

“You will suffer no longer. You will now be able to pay your rent, to hold your head up high,” DC 1707 executive director Kim Medina said to members. “We have made history.”

Just as significant are those who are not included in the agreement: teachers who don’t belong to the union — and who make up a majority of pre-K teachers in community programs. But de Blasio said he expects the union deal to serve as a template for the rest of the workforce. 

“Once this agreement is ratified, it will be the model, going forward, for certified early child education teachers across the board,” de Blasio said. 

However, the city did not provide details around how or when the non-unionized teachers might also reach parity. Alice Mulligan, the director of a pre-K center in Brooklyn where teachers don’t belong to the union, said the city’s promises were too vague.

“I don’t know what that means. You can’t take that to the bank, and that won’t put food on the table,” she said. “There’s nothing for us.”

It’s an issue the city will have to resolve if leaders are serious about stemming the churn of those who leave community programs in search of higher pay. Activists who have long pushed for parity seemed confident that the union deal would be felt by other teachers, too. 

“It’s a huge step forward and will bring really profound stability to the system,” said Jennifer March, executive director of the Citizens’ Committee for Children, an advocacy group.

The full cost of the union deal is expected to reach $15 million, with most of that money already budgeted through labor reserves, budget officials said. To reach pay parity for all certified teachers in the city’s Pre-K for All program would cost at $83 million annually, according to one estimate.

The labor agreement is unusual in that it was struck even though Local 205’s contract had not yet expired. The city and union agreed to extend that agreement, with changes, for three years. 

That timing could prove critical because it sets teachers in community-run programs in the same negotiating cycle as the UFT, allowing them to make the case that their contracts should match that of the powerhouse teachers union, which has been far more effective at negotiating higher pay for its vastly bigger pool of members. 

The new agreement is also expected to set the table for the other union local under DC 1707 that represents pre-K teachers: Local 95. Those teachers work largely in Head Start programs, with the bulk of their funding coming from the federal government. Their contract is already expired, and union officials expect to take it on next.