Salary disparity: Teachers, directors in NYC’s free pre-K program push for more money

A teacher holds a child in the background of the classroom as a little girl runs up to her with a doll. Two students play together at a table in the foreground with another teacher.
Students play in a preschool classroom. New York City’s preschool workers are gearing up for a new fight to boost salaries. (Andrea Morales for Chalkbeat)

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In her own words, Joanne Derwin was “not a runner.” 

Then last year, as Derwin embarked on her annual quest to raise money for the preschool she oversees in Brooklyn’s Windsor Terrace neighborhood, a parent persuaded her to train for the Brooklyn Half Marathon with a large group. Since then, they’ve used the race to raise tens of thousands of dollars that are crucial, in part, for covering teacher salaries. 

Derwin’s center is one of hundreds that contract with New York City for its free prekindergarten programs, expected to serve roughly 63,000 3- and 4-year-olds this fall. But these centers — which have offered seats to about 60% of the children in the city’s program — have faced a long-standing issue that is gaining renewed attention: Their city funding covers the salaries for their veteran teachers at the same rate as new teachers in city-run public schools. That makes it tough to retain staff, providers say, unless directors like Derwin find a way to close the salary gap.

“We literally have to run the Brooklyn Half Marathon to be able to have our program,” Derwin said.

Boosting wages for teachers, directors and other support staff will be a central sticking point in upcoming contract negotiations between the city and unions who represent community-based preschool staffers, with the hope that the city extends benefits to non-unionized staffers, too. 

On the campaign trail, Mayor Eric Adams said he wanted to pay these teachers for their years of experience, and he promised a path to salary parity within two years of his first term. 

“It’s almost humiliating what we are paying these professionals,” he said at the time.  

Whether he follows through on those promises remains uncertain. Spokespeople for City Hall referred Chalkbeat to the city’s labor relations office, which did not immediately respond for comment. 

The brewing battle comes four years after the city boosted teacher pay in community-based programs to match their public-school counterparts, eventually including non-unionized employees, in what was heralded as a huge achievement. Pay grew to $61,070 by 2021 for teachers with bachelor’s degrees and $68,652 for those with master’s degrees, with a one-time 2.75% raise for other staff.

That agreement, however, didn’t pay teachers according to their years of experience, nor did it address salary parity for directors or other support staff, such as assistant teachers or custodians — all issues that unions and providers plan to advocate for.  

The negotiations will happen against the backdrop of a chaotic year for the city’s early childhood education system, including late payments to providers and a controversial decision by Adams to not expand preschool seats for 3-year-olds. The City Council has called for $46 million to address pay parity issues. It’s unclear if that will meet the unions’ demands, as the Day Care Council said it does not yet have cost estimates.

Preschool workers eye contract set by teachers union

Wage increases could make the difference between keeping workers or losing them in an industry that’s already burned out from the pandemic, said Nora Moran, director of policy and advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents many providers.

Community-based preschool programs, like many industries, have faced hiring shortages since COVID, leaving them scrambling to find staff, Moran said. Programs are not just struggling to hold onto teachers; directors are also leaving. Many of these employees work longer hours and throughout the summer.

Acknowledging a need for better pay, Gov. Kathy Hochul recently announced up to $3,000 in retention bonuses for 150,000 childcare workers, with unused federal stimulus dollars.  

Without better pay, Moran said providers will be in a “dire situation,” ultimately impacting families who need preschool but can’t afford private programs.

“That sounds dramatic, but it’s true,” Moran said. “The compensation has become such a sticking point for folks.”

DC 37, which represents 7,900 early childhood workers, and the Day Care Council, which represents providers, are expected to begin negotiations with the city once their contract expires this fall. DC 37 also represents workers at federally funded Head Start programs, whose contract expired last January.

Separately, the city’s Council for Supervisors and Administrators, or CSA, is expected to restart their push to raise salaries for the 180 community-based preschool directors they represent. Pressure will likely mount in July, when the union begins court proceedings in a lawsuit that alleges the city is discriminating against community-based preschool directors, who are largely women of color, by not paying them at the same rate as directors of city-run sites. 

Unions will be looking to the tentative contract deal reached between the city and the United Federation of Teachers, or UFT, which represents educators and other workers inside of public schools. Under that tentative agreement, starting salaries for new teachers with bachelor’s degrees will jump from $61,070 to $72,349 by November 2027. 

Pay gap angers teachers and other support staff

Veteran teachers in New York City’s community-run preschool programs can make 53% of their counterparts with similar years of service in public schools, according to the Day Care Council.

To close such gaps, Derwin’s school, called One World Project, relies on multiple fundraising events, as well as income from their other programs that charge tuition, such as after school. 

Derwin said she’s proud to pay her teaching staff as well as teachers who are covered by the teachers union. But that also means her teachers must receive raises annually as they gain more experience and with new contracts, leaving Derwin to close a larger gap every year without any additional help from the city. 

“Every year, it’s a more precarious situation for us,” Derwin said. 

About 10 miles east at the Howard Beach Judea Center Preschool in Queens, site director Lisa Pearlman-Mason said they struggle annually with enrollment, leading to tight budgets. Their two teachers each make just under $69,000 annually, or the same as a first-year teacher in public schools, as required by the 2019 agreement, even though one has about 15 years of experience and the other about 10. 

They host an annual fundraiser, but the proceeds aren’t enough to cover salary bumps. (Last year, they used the money to buy an outdoor toy for their playground.) 

Their teaching assistants make roughly $25,000 a year. The starting salary for the comparable title of a paraprofessional will be $34,257 by 2027, according to the tentative teachers union agreement.

“I don’t get to keep them for more than a couple of years because they realize what’s going on and they leave,” Pearlman-Mason said. 

Salary disparity for directors pushes them out

Separate from teachers, the CSA is hoping to see pay boosted for about 180 directors of community-run preschools over a three-year period, for a total cost of $16.7 million, according to union officials. 

Pre-K directors with master’s degrees at city-run programs make at least $133,375 with one year of experience, according to CSA. Under the expired contract for directors at private programs that are publicly funded, however, the city is only required to pay $63,287 to directors with master’s degrees. 

Henry Rubio, the CSA’s president, said directors will sometimes take other jobs to make ends meet, or their centers might raise money to pay staff more. Still, the union sees directors leave their jobs “on a weekly basis” for better paying positions, including within the education department.

The union’s plea for raises traces back to at least 2019. At the time, when New York City agreed to boost teacher pay under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, officials promised to negotiate a similar “path to parity” for preschool directors, Rubio said. But since then, he said, the city has declined to do so.

Negotiations over a new contract stalled in 2021. That December, CSA filed its discrimination lawsuit, which states that community-run programs are overseen by directors who are 92% women of color, compared with the 31% at city-run sites who are Black or Latino.

“I think this is an opportunity for the mayor to really right a stark wrong here,” Rubio said. “For Black and brown women who have been dedicating their lives to the city, I think it’s an opportune time for both the City Council and the mayor to make a statement about his values.”

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City public schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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