By Brenda Flanagan
As teacher Raquel Lima leads her excited 4-year-olds in a counting song she knows she’s lucky because Clifton’s part of a special, federally-funded preschool program. That means Lima earns a salary that’s comparable to other teachers in Clifton’s public schools. Most pre-K teachers earn less. A lot less.
“I have been there. My first job out of college was at a daycare, making $6 an hour. You can’t live on that. You can’t have a family of four on that,” she said.
Federal labor statistics show a big pay gap. Nationally preschool teachers earn a median salary of $28,570 a year — that’s just 55 percent of the $51,640 earned by kindergarten teachers. While higher overall, Jersey’s median salaries show a similar gap: $35,160 for preschool teachers compared to $61,350 for kindergarten teachers. And it makes a difference, according to U.S. Education Secretary John King.
“Because of these salary differentials, you see lots of turnover in childcare facilities and preschool. If folks can’t support themselves and their families, they simply can’t afford to stay. And that means you don’t have the benefit of the experience those teachers have gained, because they’re leaving those early learning settings,” King said.
King spent some time playing with Lima’s pre-K class today. Clifton will share the $17.4 million federal grant with 18 other New Jersey districts over four years, offering classes like this one to more than 1,200 4-year-olds. Otherwise, New Jersey spends $615 million to provide full day public preschool for more than 45,000 kids — but it’s court-ordered because most of those kids live in the 31 former Abbott districts. Educators say without this boost from early learning, many older kids struggle later on.
“And then you look at this child, well how did he get so far and not get all of these skills the whole way along? Why do we have to play catch-up now, when we could’ve just started off right and built these skills from the ground up?” Lima asked.
While pre-K classes may be worth the cost, the money can be tough to find. Without this grant, Clifton kids had only Head Start. Now 150 4-year-olds here attend pre-K.
“At this level, when you’re paying the right salary, obviously, you get the more educated, the better person for the job, as well,” said Clifton Superintendent Richard Tardalo.
Clifton’s got about 500 4-year-olds eligible for preschool classes like these. But the program’s only funded for half that many kids, that’s why education officials here are hoping Congress sees fit to invest more.