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Day Care Fix: Staff Broke : Wages: Low salaries for preschool teachers is blamed for one of the most persistent problems--high turnover. The experts say that teachers coming and going are harmful to the child.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Terri Harber, it was a matter of 20 cents. As an Orange County preschool teacher, she was making $5 an hour but was being considered for a 25-cent raise. Her employers gave her five cents.

First she told them, “I’m worth more than that,” said Harber, 29 and a graduate of Southern California College. Then she told them goodby.

As Congress negotiates landmark legislation to help low-income families afford good child care, a fundamental problem that affects the quality and cost of care remains largely unaddressed: staff turnover.

A nationwide study last fall revealed a 41% annual turnover rate among day-care teachers--ranging from 30% at nonprofit centers to 75% at for-profit corporate chains. The study also showed that middle-income families tended to use the centers with the highest turnover.

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Orange County is no different, said Ann Tanouie, ombudsman for the California Department of Social Services, which oversees 700 licensed centers in Orange County. The centers with no turnover, she said, “you can count on one hand. Almost every school has turnover during the year. From one staff member to half.”

Orange County day-care teachers are “abused, totally abused” by employers, said Eugenia Pagalidis, supervisor at Golden West College Child Care Center and an adult education teacher who trains day-care teachers. “They force them to work overtime, make them get their own (substitutes) when they’re sick. They make them work on weekends, on special events. They never give them appropriate break time.”

Most day-care workers are paid under $5 an hour, she said. Despite the frustrations, many teachers hang on because they cling to “the ideals of yesterday,” Pagalidis said. “The child is a priority. They love the child. They take the time to give them a hug.”

In the national study of 227 child-care centers in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, Phoenix and Seattle, the most important predictor of high turnover was--unsurprisingly--low wages, said Marcy Whitebrook, principal investigator of the National Child Care Staffing Study coordinated by the Oakland-based Child Care Employee Project. Rather than being a job that no one wants, day care is a job that no one can afford, she said.

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Staff earning $4 per hour or less quit at twice the rate of those who earned over $6. Despite increasingly stringent educational requirements, the average hourly wage nationally for a child-care teacher is $5.35.

Child-care teachers with a college education can expect to make $11,500 a year, compared to $26,000 for the average, college-educated woman and $42,000 for her male counterpart.

Harber, for example, said she has changed jobs seven times in five years and now earns $6.50 an hour but still needs to work an extra job and requires help from relatives to live.

Most significant, the national study showed for the first time that high turnover is detrimental to children. Children in centers with higher turnover rates spent less time engaged in social activities with other children and more time in aimless wandering. They also tested lower on vocabulary tests.

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Parents also testify that turnover can be emotionally traumatic for small children.

Nancy Balty of El Toro said she placed her daughter, Brianna, in an Irvine day care center that was part of a for-profit chain because it was the only center with an opening.

“The turnover was horrendous,” she said. “Brianna would get close to someone and three weeks later, they’d be gone . . . she’d cry. I’d drop her off and there would be a new teacher. Now there’s a new person who was not giving her the same attention. It was heartbreaking.”

The House of Representatives on Thursday approved a $27.5-billion proposal designed to improve the affordability and availability of day care, mostly by increasing federal assistance to low-income parents and expanding Head Start and latchkey programs. Legislators will now attempt to reconcile the proposal with another, less-costly plan previously approved by the Senate.

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In the plans, “salaries are acknowledged as a problem, but it’s not mandatory that money be spent on salaries,” Whitebrook said. “From our perspective, salaries are the cornerstone of improving the quality of day care our kids are getting,” she said.

“People talk about expanding services. If you don’t do anything about the salary question, who’s going to provide the services you’re expanding?

“At some point, you have to make this a viable career for somebody.”

The $27.5-billion proposal is a “great first step,” she said. “But it’s not enough.”

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Wages for staff and quality care for children are but two points in the seemingly impossible day-care puzzle that also includes affordability for parents. Steps to improve the lot of one group may squeeze another.

For example, the Orange Unified School District, which provides care before and after school for 1,107 children at 22 sites, raised salaries of day-care leaders to $8.58 an hour in January. The higher wages necessitated an increase in tuition from $136 to $159 for 20 hours of weekly care, officials said.

Even so, the program has had trouble attracting workers and continues to have a turnover rate as high as 10% a month. This week, managers will recommend restricting the program to full-time students in an effort to avoid raising tuition again, said Robert Howell, director of public service.

At the root of the turnover problem, according to day-care specialists, are societal attitudes toward child care.

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“People think of child care as baby-sitting. They think it is women’s work and it looks like it is not professional,” Tanouie said.

“One of these days, people will understand having a good foundation for children from birth until they get into school is really a worthy profession.”


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