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United Way Urging State to Help Up Preschool Teaching Salaries
By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
01:02AM / Friday, November 11, 2016
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Paula Harris welcomed the Berkshire United Way and state Rep. Paul Mark in to get a glimpse of what she does every day.


Dalton Preschool Director Paul Harris met with Douglas McNally, state Rep. Paul Mark, and United Way Program Director Karen Vogel on Thursday.
DALTON, Mass. — On Thursday, Paula Harris wore a button to work in support of a movement to raise the wages for preschool teachers like herself.
 
The button was from 26 years ago.
 
Harris is approaching her 30th year as a preschool teacher and is now the director of the Dalton Preschool, housed in the same building with the CRA. When she took over as the director, she took a pay cut and she hasn't had much of a raise since then, now earning around $35,000 a year. 
 
But she's ahead of the curve. Many preschool teachers in Massachusetts are making $12 an hour, a salary of around $25,000.
 
Comparatively, that is about three times less than a teacher in the public schools gets, with typical salaries in the $60,000 range. A K-12 teacher's average salary in some towns is as high as $100,000, and less than $50,000 a year in only the state's smallest of small towns.
 
"I think that is unacceptable that wages are so low. We're talking about people who are spending time watching children, helping develop children, help guide them at some of the most important stages of their lives. You want people to hold on to these jobs, have them for a while, and to do that, there needs to be pay that is fair," said state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who visited the program on Thursday with representatives from the Berkshire United Way.
 
Mark toured early education programs in Becket and in Pittsfield as well with the United Way. The United Way is advocating for the state to step in with support to up the wages for preschool teachers.
 
"I think the legislators are beginning to look at the issue through a different lens. The prior lens was just money to buy greater access for more children. But they are realizing now that they have to fix the problem of compensation for the workforce. What's happening is these people have college degrees and are more highly qualified but then they are working for $12 to $15 dollars an hour and they can jump to different schools and make $45,000. Somehow they have to find a way to give a living wage to the workforce," board member Douglas McNally said.
 
What Harris does for a living is prepare children for kindergarten — she's not a babysitter. Studies have shown that children who go to preschool fare better in the traditional school grades, they'll need less special education, and they'll be better positioned for college. At the same time, parents are able to work and provide a higher earning for the family.
 
Harris' job is important.
 
"I think it is something we need to do. We know if a child can read by the third grade they are going to have better success and outcomes probably for the rest of their life. To me, it is an investment worth making because it is going to save money in the long run," Mark said. 
 
"You don't have to have as many remedial programs later when people are in junior high or high school and it is going to save money even relating to student debt. One of the biggest things when we talked about student loans is kids get to college and need to retake courses they should have had in high school. If you can get them on the right track of learning but the third grade, you are going to get them set up for better success and set the commonwealth up for more money available to invest in other areas."
 
United Way's Community Impact Program Manager Karen Vogel says she wants the state to craft an assessment system of preschooling options and then link pay increases, subsidized by the state, with performance. She hopes to tie in state funding for the program to the Quality Rating and Improvement System already in place
 
"As programs raise their quality levels, in that would be an embedded increase in pay for educators. That seems to be the most logical path for us right now," Vogel said. 
 
The United Way's Pittsfield Promise identified a goal of ensuring 90 percent of children are proficient or above in reading by the third grade. Enhancing access and quality of preschool is a large step in accomplishing that, they said. 
 
"The academic performance by kids on reading, literacy tests in third grade going back a decade and a half and nothing public schools have been able to do has been able to address that. Research showed that kids who were in high-quality pre-K programs are more prepared and do better," McNally said. 

Studies have shown that students who attend preschool fare better when they get to traditional K-12 education. 

While Harris hasn't had much for pay increases despite inflation and cost of living going up over the last 30 years, the school has had to up the tuition cost and is all privately paid — there is no subsidy from the state.

The school recently cobbled together donations from area businesses and held a chinese auction to raise $1,800 help support the school, but that is only an option every four years.

The price is now set at $466 a month, which McNally said would be difficult for a family with two children at that age. A second aspect of the United Way's push is to increase access for parents to be able to send the students to programs. McNally said if preschool was offered as part of the traditional educational system, parents would be able to put the money they are currently spending aside for college.
 
"The idea is really to show what is happening. Our big ask is when they get into legislative session to really be thinking about what they can do to improve access," Vogel said.
 
Last year, the state had a bill calling for universal pre-schooling but it didn't get passed. Mark says he plans to co-sponsor that bill again in hopes to ensure all students have that access. 
 
"It is more of an investment than an expense," McNally said.
 
Mark's tour was one of many the United Way is holding throughout the county. It had already toured programs in Pittsfield with state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier and in South County with state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli. Next the group will be looking to do something similar with state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi in North County.
 
"When we see something in person, it makes us have a better understanding of the programs," Mark said. "It makes us better advocates for the program." 
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