Photo: Stephanie Arnett ©2012

More than 400 early educators and advocates, many of them dressed in red, gathered at the Massachusetts State House yesterday to urge legislators to include funds for increased compensation and other line items related to early education and care in the fiscal year 2013 budget.

Speaker after speaker noted that early educators are meeting the call for increased quality in early learning programs. “We’ve been there saying we need strong regulation. We’ve been there for every major reform,” Karen Frederick, executive director of Community Teamwork, Inc., in Lowell and president of the Massachusetts Association for Early Education & Care (MADCA), said in opening remarks. “We said teachers need CDAs (child development associate certificates). Our teachers embraced that and got CDAs. They said you need associate degrees. And we went and got associate degrees. The field has embraced every initiative. Now it’s bachelor’s degrees. And you’re embracing it.”

Yet increased compensation has not followed the increased education and training. Early educators working in programs serving low-income children subsidized by the state’s Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) have not received a raise in five years, organizers of Advocacy Day noted. The average early educator earns $23,500 a year, and the Advocacy Day coalition is seeking funds to increase the average annual salary to $25,100.

The issue is one of the most challenging in the movement to create a statewide system of high-quality early education and care. Research clearly demonstrates that the benefits of early education are associated with high-quality programs, and that the quality of the early education workforce is a key determinant of program quality. Research also indicates that child outcomes are best in classrooms led by teachers with bachelor’s degrees and specialized training in early childhood.

However, funding of early education and care rests largely on low wages for the workforce and high fees for parents. Massachusetts has the most expensive child care in the nation, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. Public funding comes largely from the federal government, through Head Start and subsidies for children in low-income families that are tied to parental work status, not a birthright for the child. The state’s smaller investment to support quality in early education and care for young children is spread over more than a dozen separate line items. The result is that only about one quarter of preschool-aged children in Massachusetts benefit from publicly funded early education – either through subsidies, Head Start or public school prekindergarten.

Amy Carroll, of Cape Cod Child Development’s West Yarmouth Child Care Center, is one of the early educators Frederick referenced in her opening remarks. Carroll used a scholarship to earn her associate degree at the local community college and used a scholarship to earn her bachelor’s degree. Now she is taking graduate courses. “My hope,” she told her fellow early educators, “is to continue to provide services.”  Pat Sawyer, a lead teacher at Community Teamwork with almost 40 years’ experience, said she’s seen co-workers leave the field for better-paying jobs.

Yesterday’s event came two months after Massachusetts was awarded a federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge grant of $50 million over four years. The commonwealth is one of only nine states to receive an ELC grant, and EEC Commissioner Sherri Killins credited the early educators in the room with helping the state earn the competitive funds. “You all should be really proud,” Killins said. You “are helping us move from a closing-the-achievement-gap conversation to a conversation about promise. We want to be talking about the promise we see in the eyes of our children and families.”

People who earn college degrees, Killins added, should earn salaries that reflect their education. “I can no longer pay you as if you are a high school student,” she said. “One of the things we have to do is reform our rates. We are embarked on a process to determine the cost of quality.”

Several legislators – Representative Linda Dorcena Forry (D-Dorchester), Representative Alice Wolf (D-Cambridge), Representative Gloria Fox (D-Roxbury) and House Speaker Pro Tempore Patricia Haddad (D-Somerset) – addressed the group.

“This has been a great journey,” Haddad said. “We thought when we created the [nation’s] first Department of Early Education and Care [in 2005] that our trajectory would be like a rocket. It’s been more like a gradual hill….

“Every child needs to have a good beginning, regardless of their zip code,” Haddad added. “Closing the achievement gap starts with you…. It’s about every single child’s ability to get a high-quality early education.”

Advocacy Day was sponsored by the Early Education and Care & School Age Coalition. It seeks the following items in the state’s FY13 budget:

In addition to MADCA, members of the coalition are the Alliance of Massachusetts YMCAs, Massachusetts Head Start Association, Massachusetts Association for Community Action, Parent-Child Home Program, Massachusetts Independent Child Care Organization, Together for Kids Coalition, Boston Alliance for Early Education, Associated Early Care and Education, Massachusetts Child Care Resource and Referral Network, Horizons for Homeless Children, Strategies for Children’s Early Education for All Campaign, Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children, Massachusetts Family Network, and Massachusetts Association of Community Partnerships for Children.