Are All Indiana Pre-Schools Created Equal?
President Obama announced last month he wants to work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every 4-year-old in the country. His proposal comes as Indiana lawmakers consider a pilot program that would put state dollars toward early education for the first time. But as StateImpact Indiana’s Elle Moxley reports, those already in the business of educating Indiana’s youngest students say not all preschool programs are created equal.
Universal pre-K for 4-year-olds? Great, says Kathy Ammerman, a Head Start teacher in Fayette County Schools. But she has a few questions first. “Number one, how will you ensure quality?”
And number two, who’s going to pay for it? What President Obama has proposed is a cost-sharing program with the states to enroll more students from low to middle-income families in high quality early education. Currently Indiana is one of 11 states that doesn’t provide public money for pre-K, though that could change if a small-scale pilot program passes the General Assembly this spring.
So for now the federally-funded Head Start program is one of the few options low-income Hoosier families can access. Students in Ammerman’s class at Eastside Elementary are stacking blocks and cutting shapes out of play dough. It’s age-appropriate learning for 3, 4 and 5-year-olds, says Ammerman, who has degrees in K-6 and early childhood education. “The way children incorporate information into their brains is through hands-on learning, hands-on experiences.”
Across the country, Head Start hopes to boost quality by employing more teachers like Ammerman — the goal is by the end of the year for 50 percent of the program’s workforce to have a bachelor’s or master’s degree.. Indiana is on track to meet that goal. But there’s a problem: The average salary for a Head Start teacher in Indiana is less than $25,000.
National Institute for Early Education Research Director Steve Barnett says early educators with degrees leave all the time for kindergarten and first grade classrooms where they can make a lot more money. “If you’re in a labor market where for the same skill set, you can increase your pay by almost double — you’re going to do that. Very few teachers are going to stay year after year and pay that kind of price.”
Last year Head Start turnover was about 16 percent statewide. That figure includes not just classroom teachers but part-time aides and support staff. But in Ammerman’s district where early educators with degrees make the same starting salary as other teachers in the school corporation — about $34,000 — turnover was less than one percent.
“You have to have good teachers. You have to have teacher who understand child development, who understand learning and teaching, who are going to stick around for more than a year or two.”
So where do you start? With existing childcare providers, says Barnett. When his home state of New Jersey began its urban pre-K push, 75 percent of students were already in some form of preschool. So instead of building new schools, the state offered to double the salary of Head Start and childcare workers willing to get a degree in early education.
“We raised the quality of those programs from poor-to-mediocre to good-to-excellent, and it’s mostly the same teachers.”
Some early education advocates make hard-and-fast distinctions between childcare and preschool. But not Tina Pender, the education coordinator for Monroe County United Ministries. Pender oversees the curriculum for the four classrooms of 2 to 5-year-olds at the Bloomington childcare center. It’s both licensed by the state and accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the same organization that certifies many Head Start classrooms.
“Most people don’t understand that we’re teaching science, and math, and social studies, and creative expression. We hit all of those things the very youngest of classrooms, all the way up.”
Pender, who has an associate’s degree in early childhood education and plans to go back to school this spring, says it’d be nice to only hire teachers with four-year degrees. But the center just can’t afford to pay teachers more. Low-income families pay an average of $45 per week for childcare that costs the center more than $200 to provide, and last year one of the 2-year-old classrooms closed because there weren’t enough sponsors and donations to go around.
For StateImpact Indiana, I’m Elle Moxley.