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A workforce conundrum: Low-paid child care providers need to learn more to earn more, but learning more isn't cheap

During the recent eclipse craze, Rosa Lopez taught the 3- and 4-year-olds she cares for about the science behind the big event that had everyone titling their heads to the sky. She showed them pictures and they made art projects out of black and yellow construction paper. 

"They kept reciting it, like, ‘The eclipse is when the sun was covered by the moon like this,’ " Lopez recalled with a warm chuckle. "They were so eager to learn it and they were telling their parents and the other teachers. And I was like, Oh my god, I taught them that."

Moments like this have kept Lopez in the early childhood field for 24 years, even though she barely earns enough to get by. Despite her decades of experience, Lopez, 44, makes just under $14.50/hour. 

"It would be nice  – don’t get me wrong," said Lopez. "Having enough money to sustain yourself without struggling is good, but the income isn't as important as what I teach them."

Many in the field do struggle. Studies show that most child care workers don’t earn enough to make ends meet. Lopez says without her husband's income, she'd be living paycheck to paycheck.

Rosa Lopez reads a book to kids at the Mexican American Opportunity Fund child care center in Norwalk. She's been in the child care field for 24 years and makes under $15/hr.
Wayne Huang/ SEUI Local 99
Rosa Lopez reads a book to kids at the Mexican American Opportunity Fund child care center in Norwalk. She's been in the child care field for 24 years and makes under $15/hr.

But in order to make more money, she needs higher education. Like the overwhelming majority of early childhood educators, she does not have a college degree. Ninety-six percent of public school teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree – but most early educators do not and are not required to. 

But that's starting to change. The more research we get about how quickly a baby’s brain develops – one million neural connections are made every second until the age of 3 – the more educators and policymakers are realizing that child care workforce, which includes about 2 million people nationwide, is about more than just babysitting.

More positions are starting to require college degrees, but since wages are still low, investing in higher education may not reap a return.

"We’re in a period where there’s increasingly stringent professional requirements in order to work with young children without increasing compensation," said education consultant Randi Wolfe. "We’ve had situations here in California, where somebody took the time and money [to go back to school], they go into serious debt and at the end of the day they get a $.10 per hour raise," she said.

In L.A. County, 90 percent of child care workers don’t earn enough to cover living costs on their own, according to a study from the Economic Policy Institute. Nationally, the average for salary for early educators – excluding preschool workers – is just over $25,000.

Wolfe worked with the education workers union, Service Employees International Union, to develop a program to help workers trapped in this conundrum. Drawing on the old model of apprenticeship, this program is provides mentorship, on-the-job training and free classes where providers can earn the college credits they need to move up the pay scale. 

Child care workers in the state are required to have child development permits to work at certain levels in centers, and each level has certain college course required to move up – from assistant, to associate teacher, to teacher, and so on. For the unionized workers, each level comes with a slight pay increase, roughly $.50 to $1 more per hour. 

"I think what this program brings is that sort of old time union model to a new face of labor," said Terry Carter, spokesperson for SEUI Local 99. "Instead of just being for the guys in hard hats with hammers and wrenches, now early educators can can get an apprenticeship program. And it’s mostly women of color doing this work."

There are rough 170 educators currently participating in the program, funded by a grant from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. It reaches local child care workers in Mexican American Opportunity Foundation (MAOF) centers, family child care providers and teachers with the federally-funded preschool program Head Start in the Bay Area. 

Organizers realize this is taking a tiny bite out of a big issue but they hope to expand the program and hope others will replicate it.

Earning a bachelor's degree can mean a significant difference in pay – $17.20/hr versus $14.40 for Head Start teachers, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Obtaining that degree can take a long time, which Zeyda Loera knows all too well. 

“It took me about eight years to get my bachelor’s," said Loera.

She worked three jobs, while going to college. She as a teacher's assistant in Glendale Unified School District in the mornings, then worked at a private school in the afternoons, before heading to an evening babysitting job. 

"And then from 6:30 until 10 I would go to community college and take courses. And this would happen Monday through Thursday," she said with a sigh. She got her degree at 27. 

"It was really easy to give up, but I kept telling myself I need to finish this," she said. 

Loera now works as a mentor with the apprenticeship program and provides on-the-job training for Lopez and workers.

Christine Wilson, an adjunct professor with Los Angeles Trade Technical College, hands out a syllabi for her Infant and Toddler course.
Priska Neely/KPCC
Christine Wilson, an adjunct professor with Los Angeles Trade Technical College, hands out a syllabi for her Infant and Toddler course.

Lopez just started her fifth course with the program, working toward an associate's degree. In an attempt to remove as many obstacles as possible, classes are held at night and on weekends at easily accessible community centers. Last week, Lopez was one of two dozen women who filed into MAOF center in Commerce to start a course called "Infant and Toddler Studies."

In just the first few minutes of class, Christine Wilson, adjunct professor at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, shared some facts that showcase the gravity of the field.

"Eighty percent of the brain is formed by age 2 [and] 90 percent is formed by age 3," Wilson said in her opening lecture. "That’s why this course is one of the most important courses you’ll ever take in your college career."

Lopez is happy to soak up the knowledge and bring it back to her work at the MAOF child care center in Norwalk. 

"I have questions still, even though I’ve been in the field forever," said Lopez. "I just want to further my career at the moment I’m an associate teacher and I just want to continue getting my permits. If this gonna help us, it makes it an incentive."