For Mitrajita Persaud, a salary bump would mean more than just financial stability. After almost four decades teaching young children, and three years leading a preschool in New York City, it would also boost her self esteem.
A bigger paycheck would mean her work is valued.
“They don’t see us. Because of our low pay,” said Persaud, who is the director of a preschool center in South Jamaica that is funded through the city to serve the children of low-income families.
Advocates and directors who hoped to win salary boosts had their hopes dashed Wednesday, when the city’s budget for 2022 was approved. Despite the historically high $98.7 billion spending plan for the next fiscal year, the City Council’s $21 million proposal to increase pay for pre-K directors of city-subsidized centers was not included in the final budget.
Soon, directors in community-run programs like Persaud’s may even earn less than the teachers they oversee.
Low wages plague the early childhood education system across the country. But in New York City, there are stark salary disparities even within the system. Program directors of community-run programs, which contract with the education department to provide free and subsidized care for working families, earn about half of what their counterparts at city-run programs pull in.
Minimum salaries for directors in community programs start at just over $63,000 for those that are unionized. But since many centers aren’t part of a union, job postings often advertise much lower salaries — sometimes about $40,000.
In education department programs, meanwhile, directors with a year of experience make more than $133,000, including scheduled raises that will start in September.
The salary disparities are especially glaring because they cut along lines of gender and race: The early childhood workforce in community organizations are more likely to be women of color, compared with those earning higher salaries in city schools.
“Directors and teachers, like all staff [in community organizations] should be treated like essential workers now that the city is emerging from the pandemic, and equity in pay for a group that is majority Black and brown women is essential,” said Tara Gardner, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, which represents providers.
The community-run programs enroll the majority of children in the city’s popular Pre-K for All, which is universal for 4-year-olds, and its 3-K program, which is gearing up to serve about two-thirds of the city’s 3-year-olds next year. But in many cases, these centers also care for children in other publicly subsidized programs, meaning directors and teachers work longer hours and all year — as opposed to the 10-month calendar for education department pre-K programs — even while earning less.
Teachers’ wage increases have left directors behind
Teachers in community pre-K programs also faced pay gaps compared to those in city-run preschools. But they recently won big raises to help bring salaries on a more even field. The last of these raises will take effect in October, which will put starting teacher salaries at about $69,000. That’s higher than directors’ starting salaries.
Low pay, on top of the salary disparity for directors, adds up to recruitment challenges and churn on staff. And that ultimately affects students, said Maria Mavrides, a researcher at CUNY Hunter College who is studying the early childhood workforce in New York City. Her interviews with dozens of educators and parents showed that staff turnover made it hard for parents to feel safe dropping off their children, and students had more trouble separating from their parents — especially during the pandemic.
“That bond of trust and affection was very difficult,” Marvrides said.
At one center, there had been five directors in two years. Marvrides also found some centers are being overseen by people still working towards becoming licensed teachers themselves — meaning that some directors are less qualified than their teachers.
“We have to consider the quality of mentorship that’s provided. How can you be supervising and coaching teachers when you, yourself, have limited experience?” Mavrides said.
Low pay takes a toll not only on instruction, but on directors’ mental health, she said. Working through the pandemic, even as many public schools shuttered, seemed to intensify those feelings. In her conversations with directors, they relayed “feeling abandoned, of feeling unsafe, of feeling their life was on the line.”
Other avenues for a salary increase
Although the city budget did not include a pay boost, one could still be achieved through union negotiations. The Council for School Supervisors and Administrators, or CSA, represents about 175 directors, but their contract has expired for nearly a year and bargaining is ongoing.
“Pay disparity is discrimination, plain & simple,” the CSA recently tweeted. “Why pay these leaders any less?”
Though the union represents only a small slice of directors, if they manage to win raises, those gains might be applied to a wider group. That’s what happened when the city agreed to increase teacher salaries for those in community-run classrooms. Amid concerns that higher salaries for only a subset of teachers would create new problems when it comes to attracting and keeping staff, the city ultimately decided to raise the salary floor for 1,500 non-union teachers, as well.
After successfully making preschool free for all 4-year-olds, Mayor Bill de Blasio is once again expanding access to early childhood education. Tapping federal money, the city aims to make preschool for 3-year-olds available in every district this year (though there still won’t be room for every child who is expected to want a seat.) Advocates warn the city’s lofty goal of making 3-K universal by 2023 could run against recruitment challenges if director salaries aren’t addressed.
“You want to actually retain high quality staff and you want to be able to ensure, whether you’re in a center or a school, that you have a stable workforce that loves what they’re doing,” said Jennifer March, executive director of the advocacy group Citizens’ Committee for Children. “We want to make sure that the workforce, whether you’re in a community-based organization or a school, that you’re properly compensated.”