Study: Preschool teachers make near-poverty wages in Pa.

Ryan Morehart thought he had found a field that was both valuable and enjoyable: child care. But as he advanced, he realized there wasn't much advancing to do.

He considered going back to school, but that didn't promise enough financial benefit.

"I love working with kids," said Morehart, 29, of Philadelphia. But after nine years in early childhood education, he switched to office management.

"My benefits are a lot better, the pay is a lot better, I have money left over to the point where we could do stuff," he said.

While Philadelphia could sweeten this narrative with the recently passed soda tax, aimed at funding pre-K, a new federal report shows that Pennsylvania's low pay for early-childhood teachers undermines its ability to deliver high-quality education at a critical developmental stage.

Nationwide in 2015, the median annual wage for preschool teachers was $28,570 - about 55 percent of what elementary teachers were paid, according to a report released this month by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. For a child-care teacher, it was even lower, around $20,320.

Such low compensation leaves many early-childhood educators around the poverty line, which is $20,160 for a family of three.

The report also listed Pennsylvania preschool teachers, excluding special education, in the lowest bracket for annual median pay, earning $21,930 to $23,890. Median annual wages for child-care teachers was $19,590. The average kindergarten teacher in the state made more than double: $51,050.

This comes as no surprise to Donna Cooper, the executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), which serves the Philadelphia region. She said she's known preschool educators who leave their jobs to work in fast food, simply because the pay is better.

"Federal efforts, state efforts have repeatedly been undermined. The minute [child-care providers] get a job offer that's higher, they're going," Cooper said. "That is something that has been widely understood by the early-childhood sector."

Also understood is how a child's development in the first few years can predict his or her future growth and success, educational experts agreed.

"High-quality providers and educators are the single most important factors in these early experiences," the report states.

Yet, there is little investment in high-quality early-childhood learning, said Sharon Easterling, former executive director of the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children. That, she said, needs to change.

More spending on quality early education leads to reduced spending later for special education, child protection, welfare, and the criminal justice system, studies show.

"The way forward is to stay focused on the payment rate and quality," Easterling said. Pennsylvania requires pre-K teachers to have a bachelor's degree and an early-childhood certificate. Many preschools also want well-qualified educators. Yet there's little incentive for teachers to choose early childhood, and if they do, they leave soon, said Cooper.

"The school district steals my teachers," said Chandra Soans, executive director of Grace-Trinity Academy in Northeast Philadelphia. "We are trying to do the best with what we get. . . . Unless the funding changes, I can't compete with them."

The School District of Philadelphia on average spent $12,570 per-child from kindergarten through 12th grade in the 2013-2014 school year.

Child care and preschools receive much of their funding from Head Start, the state's Pre-K Counts, and child-care subsidies. These sources spent on average for each child less than $9,217 for the 2014-2015 school year.

In Philadelphia, families paying out of pocket for preschool in 2014 spent on average $9,620.

Each time there's a push for higher salaries, the public responds with calls to expand access to early childhood education instead, Cooper said.

Cooper said higher matters. "We want these very well-qualified teachers," she said.

Gov. Wolf has said his goal is universal pre-K, but the budget process so far has yet to produce the funds. This means providers simply have to hope teachers stay out of goodwill, Cooper said.

"A system can't rely on saints," Cooper said. "They have to begin to move toward a pay scale."

Right now, Cynthia M.B. Robinson is one of those "saints," running a family day care for six children.

"I do it because it's my passion not because of the salary," Robinson said, explaining how she makes education a priority for the 2 to 5 year olds. She said she earns about $22,000 after paying for supplies, food, and overhead.

New Jersey was listed in the report as one of the best states for quality, early-childhood education, a change that was prompted by a Supreme Court ruling in 1998. Today, its preschool teachers make about $10,000 more annually than counterparts in Pennsylvania.

gtoohey@philly.com

610-313-8105 @grace_2e