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Low pay, high turnover hurts early childhood education in Nebraska, Buffett Institute says

Low pay, high turnover hurts early childhood education in Nebraska, Buffett Institute says

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If your kid’s child care center seems to lose a lot of teachers, you’re not alone, according to a new report.

Low pay and employee turnover is undermining the quality of early childhood education in Nebraska, according to a report from Nebraska’s Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Turnover is most prevalent in licensed child care centers, where the average annual turnover rate is 26 percent.

Some industries have far higher rates; for example, as much as 70 percent in the restaurant and hotel industry.

But this is not just a matter of having somebody new cooking your burger, according to Susan Sarver, the institute’s director of workforce planning and development.

“The key to quality in an early childhood classroom is the relationship with the teacher — the long-term, consistent relationship with the adult. And when teachers are leaving, you can’t develop those relationships with the children and families.”

The revolving door and inconsistent care can have “devastating” effects on children during their formative years, she said.

The report draws on the results of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Survey, the largest survey ever undertaken of the professionals who provide early care and education to children from birth through grade 3 in the state.

The survey was an initiative of the institute’s Early Childhood Workforce Development Program and was conducted with assistance from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Bureau of Sociological Research.

The turnover rate for early childhood teachers was 26 percent in licensed child care settings, 15 percent in state-funded pre-kindergarten settings and 16 percent in kindergarten through grade 3 settings, the report says.

On the hiring side, 62 percent of center administrators reported difficulty hiring staff because prospective candidates lack appropriate training and certification, the report said. Filling vacancies takes two months, on average, administrators said.

The report concludes that early educators should be better compensated for their work.

“They work really hard,” Sarver said. “They have skills and knowledge that are unique to their field. But the median pay is $11 an hour. And over 60 percent of the administrators in our survey said that’s the reason teachers leave, it’s because of low pay.”

The institute is working with the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission on coming up with solutions. The commission is made up of 40 public- and private-sector leaders. Recommendations are expected to be brought forward next fall, she said.

Thelma Sims, owner and director of the Element Learning Center in the Florence area of north Omaha, is familiar with the turnover problem.

She said it’s compounded by the need to hire better-educated early childhood teachers who can handle what she called “a really difficult job.”

Children and families are getting more difficult to serve, she said.

“More mental health issues. Poor parenting. It’s just a new generation of children,” she said.

She’s looking for employees with some post-secondary education to deliver the level of services needed, she said.

She understands why young people would leave the business for other jobs. The public schools can offer a secure job with full benefits, including retirement, she said.

“Me, as a small business owner, invest the time, money, energy into getting them trained to a different level, and then they go to the school system because I can’t afford the benefit package,” she said.

The compensation, she said, has to come to another level, so she can afford to hire a higher-level, or more qualified, individual who understands early childhood development.

Quality early childhood teachers are important to closing the achievement gap, Sims said.

When it comes to the kids in her care, “all they’re looking for is consistency and love,” she said.

joe.dejka@owh.com, 402-444-1077

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