Selma Sanchez spent the summer in a hiring frenzy. She's the program director of the Child Development Consortium of Los Angeles (CDCLA), and at one of the preschool sites, almost all of the jobs needed to be filled.
"In July we lost our director," Sanchez said. "June and July – we lost three teachers."
Most of the staff left to work at a Head Start center that's recently opened nearby – the federal preschool program pays slightly better than her state subsidized program. One lead teacher left the preschool in Canoga Park after 10 years, for a job as a teacher's aide at Head Start – fewer responsibilities, more pay.
Teachers from a temp agency are filling some of the slots now and Sanchez, who normally oversees all 10 sites around L.A. County, spent weeks commuting to the site to teach kids in the classroom, to fill out reports, to cook and to clean.
"I've been interviewing like crazy," said Sanchez. "We can’t compete with salaries."
She wants to hire teachers with bachelor's and master’s degrees, but most won’t settle for the $20 per hour she can pay.
One of the last teachers Sanchez hired had never taken a child development class.
"She had like over five years of experience, but no education, and that’s who we hired," she said. "That’s all I could get."
High turnover rates are familiar territory for providers. Wages and benefits for early educators are among the lowest of any profession in the country. Nearly half of child care workers are using some form of federal income support.
The creation of transitional kindergarten (TK), the state's grade for four-year-olds which started in 2012, has further exacerbated hiring issues – luring qualified teachers out of the early education system and to school districts where they can make more money.
"TK has been affecting us since they started," said Sanchez.
A shift in the food chain
Those who are paid to care for and educate little kids make vastly different amounts of money depending on the funding stream for the program and the age of the children. If the early education system as a food chain, TK is the new whale on the scene. It's started to affect all of the other fish in the preschool sea.
"When we're talking about a shortage of teachers, what we're really talking about is a shortage of qualified teachers, because most of the qualified teachers are moving from private, non-profit, into the public sector," said Yolanda Carlos, faculty member at the Pacific Oaks College school of education.
Transitional kindergarten teachers, who must have bachelor's degrees and teaching credentials, are paid like K-12 educators. Head Start is a federally funded program that is requiring more teachers to have bachelor's degrees, but still pays an average annual salary of $35,776.
"Every year we lose a few [Head Start teachers] to L.A. Unified," said Michael Olenick, head of the Child Care Resource Center, which runs two dozen Head Start centers in the San Fernando Valley. "The pay is better, the benefits are much better."
As Head Start teachers get the qualifications to move to TK jobs, Head Start programs are scrambling to fill positions.
"I have two or three classrooms that their substitute costs have gone as high as $200 to $300,000 dollars in one year," said Keesha Woods, executive director for the L.A. County Office of Education Head Start and Early Learning program. Because of child-to-teacher ratio requirements, programs have to have teachers in the classroom and turn to expensive temp agencies. "And that is simply because they can’t find qualified teachers to fill the classrooms."
So where do they look? Woods saids in many instances, "unfortunately, we recruit them from other providers that [are] paying lower salaries."
It's a ripple effect, leaving programs like CDCLA, where the majority of slots are subsidized by the state, with few candidates who have education in child development. Since the field pays so little, many can't afford higher education.
"People who are trying to run these programs are tearing their hair out," said Marcy Whitebook, who runs the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.
"You could say this was an unintended consequence, but it was actually a very predictable consequence," said Whitebook. "When people with the same qualifications are being paid dramatically different salaries, based on the funding stream and the age of the children, of course you’re gonna see this movement."
'What am I doing here?'
Stephanie Guerrero is looking to make the move. She's a site supervisor at a preschool in Glendale where she's worked for five years.
"I love what I do," said Guerrero, "I was born to work with kids, that’s what I was made for."
She only earns around $38,000 a year and has trouble paying all of her bills.
"When you don’t get paid enough, you start to feel like, what am I doing here?" Guerrero said.
So, she's been working to make a move to transitional kindergarten. She's spent the last two years working toward her teaching credential, taking on more debt all the while.
"I could teach TK and probably make like double what I’m making now," she said.
Whitebook foresees more undergraduate students bypassing preschool jobs altogether and working toward TK from the start.
To be clear, none of the teachers or program directors contacted for this story are trying to paint transitional kindergarten as a villain.
"TK is a good reform," Whitebook said, "but when you just reform one part of the system it has repercussions on the rest."
Their desire is for educators at every level of the field to make more. Several states and cities –including West Virginia, Oregon and San Antonio – are working toward creating parity between preschool and K-12 educators. California has not taken steps to close the gaps.
"We have to be equal," said Sanchez, who is also head of the Southern California Advocates for Every Young Child. She wants the educators at all levels to join forces and advocate for the idea that what they do is "not baby sitting, but education."
Whitebook, who's spent decades studying child care employment issues, lays out a simple case for higher wages: "If the science says the brain is most sensitive in these early years, and if we know every community has child care centers, and if we can be reasonably assured the robots are not gonna take over this area of work, then why aren’t we making this a middle class job?"