As pre-K teachers celebrate pay raises, day care union seizes the moment to reach more schools

All of the teacher groups that Jennifer Corre follows on Facebook were buzzing with the news: A just-announced deal would significantly boost pay for unionized pre-K teachers working in community-run classrooms.

Thanks to a decision Corre and her colleagues made just days earlier, the deal between the city and the union representing many preschool teachers meant they would get a raise — and a big one at that.

The Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, preschool staff had recently joined District Council 1707, the union that brokered the agreement. Corre rushed to tell Oksana Grebenyuk, the education director at the school where she teaches, Early Childhood Development Center Kaleidoscope.

“I got excited. I told Ms. Oksana, ‘We’re going to get a pay raise,’” Corre said.

Most independent preschools in New York City are not unionized. But on the heels of a $15 million labor agreement that has been hailed as historic — and with a pending merger with its much larger counterpart, District Council 37 — the union that represents daycare workers and preschool teachers is seizing the moment to try to grow. 

The new deal will boost salaries by as much as $20,000 over the next three years for teachers with advanced degrees and certification, bringing their pay on par with starting salaries in public schools. Corre is certified with a bachelor’s degree. Teachers like her will see their salary go up by about $17,000.

The agreement was ratified in early August. Now, union recruiters are knocking on center doors, launching a text message campaign, and setting up tables at city events for new hires in publicly funded programs. They’re also showing up at centers like Kaleidoscope, which had taken it upon itself to reach out to the union.

So far, only a handful of new centers have come on board.

“This is a start for us,” said Indira Mohan, an organizing director for DC 1707. “Our intention is to touch all of the centers, nonunionized, to let them know, ‘Hey, this is an opportunity here for your employees to benefit.’”

Grebenyuk has been running private preschools for a decade now, and she began to expand Kaleidoscope just as the city’s universal preschool program for 4-year-olds, Pre-K for All, rolled out in 2014.  

Enrollment boomed, but Grebenyuk struggled with teacher turnover. Some realized they could earn more for the same job at a public pre-K, and they left for public schools as soon as they got the required credentials.

In order to make room for so many students in Pre-K for All, new classrooms were opened in public schools. But mostly, the city contracted with independently run centers, like Kaleidoscope, and providers say they are funded at rates that assume much lower salaries for their teachers. Pre-K teachers in public schools are public employees, so they are represented by the powerful United Federation of Teachers; it affords them higher salaries and a benefits package.

Kaleidoscope offers paid days off on federal holidays and a few weeks of paid vacation a year. Grebenyuk tried offering health insurance, but the plans she could afford were of little use to her teachers, so they opted out and she dropped it. 

“It’s very hard to keep the professional teachers, who are certified, because they’re looking for benefits, they’re looking for more money,” said Grebenyuk. A couple years into Pre-K for All, she said her teachers were earning their credentials and seeking employment at public schools. 

Pre-K teachers in public schools earned as much as 60 percent more than their community-based counterparts, depending on years of experience. City leaders have said the union deal will serve as a template for how eligible teachers at Pre-K for All centers would be paid, union membership or no, so it’s possible non-unionized preschool staff could eventually see their pay go up, too.

One day this past spring, Grebenyuk and other independent preschool directors working with the city program gathered to air their grievances. Someone mentioned DC 1707, and Grebenyuk decided to reach out. The issue of pay parity has been simmering for years in the city, but negotiations with the city had not yet begun. 

A DC 1707 representative visited the school and made his pitch. The staff was on board. Rather than taking a staff vote, Grebenyuk, on behalf of management, simply recognized the union — officially on June 30.

Kaleidoscope is one of about 300 independent pre-K centers in New York City are members of DC 1707, out of a total of more than 1,000 similar independent programs, both for-profit and nonprofit, participating in Pre-K for All. To date, the decision to unionize is relatively uncommon, and management’s voluntary recognition of the decision rarer still. 

Nationwide, an estimated 10 percent of teaching staff in community-based early childhood programs are unionized, according to the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment, based at the University of California, Berkeley. In New York City, union shops range from some of the largest social service providers in the city to centers that have just a handful of teachers, such as Kaleidoscope. 

The extra pay Grebenyuk’s teachers receive won’t come from her own budget, but rather through her contract with the city. The center is now bound to union agreements around work issues and job protections, which plenty of managers would rather avoid. For teachers and support staff including custodians and cooks, union dues are on a sliding scale based on income, with the highest coming in around $45 a month, according to DC 1707.

Corre can expect a $4,000 pay boost in October, the first of the three raises that will kick in under the recent deal. Beyond a little extra financial security, she said the raise has shaped how she feels about her job, four years in.  

“It’s definitely about respect,” she said. “And that’s really important to me.”