As someone who works directly with vulnerable populations, it’s often hard to feel optimistic in the current national and local political environment. It’s particularly difficult to see policy decisions and actions taking place in our city that inadvertently end up negatively impacting the vulnerable populations they are meant to help. The YMCA’s planned early education expansion is a good example of this, where they will add 100 more classroom spaces, 50% for families on childcare subsidy. On the surface this looks like a clearly positive addition to the city and especially for children living in poverty, but without any coordination from the larger early education community, this decision will likely do more damage than good.
Last week I wrote about how Burlington’s early education system is strained to the point of full-blown crisis. One critical part of this crisis is that preschools, in programs throughout the spectrum, have significant trouble finding and retaining highly educated teachers who can work with traumatized populations. A friend of mine at a different highly rated center said it took them an entire year to fill a single teaching spot. It turns out that when the cost of living is high and early educators make under $15 an hour, graduates choose to move elsewhere. That’s not even considering the nearly $30,000 in average debt students have when they graduate UVM, with debt repayments equaling 6 weeks of pay for 10+ consecutive years.
My school offers a good example, and I hope this information won’t get me into trouble, but I do believe it’s important to be honest and open about how our school struggles. My school is one of the best in the city if not the state (I say this to brag about the amazing work of my coworkers and directors, because if I was as good as them I’d be more focused on curriculum, not on political blogging!), and we recently put out an ad to hire substitute teachers on a per diem basis. After 3 months, only one person sent in an application. I think it’s pretty clear that the situation is dire.
Now, in a system where quality teachers are already scarce, the YMCA is looking to add 50 infant/toddler spots and 50 preschool spots. If we assume that 2 FT and 1 PT teachers will be hired for every classroom, which is fairly common, and each infant/toddler classroom has 8 children while each preschool classroom has 16 children, the Y will need to hire conservatively 27 teachers, most of whom will need 4-year college degrees and a teaching license. So, while it is nearly impossible to find lower-qualified substitutes, the Y will need another 27 highly trained educators. Add the fact that last year at the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission, after reading this letter that my staff and I wrote discussing our successes and challenges, newly hired YMCA CEO Kyle Dodson commented that the letter was overly dramatic. I have a lot of doubt that these new positions will pay a fair, livable wage. I feel sorry for the unlucky worker who has to hire for the expansion.
Just to reiterate: The YMCA will expand way too quickly in an environment when every center is struggling. At best, schools like mine, that already cannot compete with the Y in terms of fundraising and advertising, will need to raise salaries just to keep staff and not have to compete in an even tighter labor market. This means that tuition will rise for families, especially those in the middle of the income ladder. More spots for those with wealth and those without, but the middle and lower middle class will be squeezed even worse. On top of that, without highly trained staff who know how to work with children with trauma, the Y will likely see incredibly high rates of teacher and student turnover, and all quality in all centers will start to suffer. Worst case scenario, the Y pushes centers like mine out of business, leaving a handful of larger early childhood ‘factories’, like Heartworks, to choose from.
It’s a lose-lose, and I think any gains for the few families who get the new spots will be eaten up by system destabilization and potential closure of other centers. Is the risk of destabilizing the system worth it? Or should the city take its time, actually work with early childhood educators, and make sure the centers that are currently open can improve on quality and teacher retention until we as a community figure out a sustainable plan?