Making Change: Raising Dollars that Make Sense
By Susan Eisman
(Originally Published in HFP Newsletter — November 2011)
Co-op preschool teachers and parents are in a unique position to make change to an unjust system. We live in a system that disregards the needs of young children and belittles parents and early childhood teachers by expecting us to do this crucial work of raising young children with little or no money. Over the past six years, I’ve worked closely with HFP families to improve the financial situation of our program and to improve the teacher’s contract. I’m pleased with the progress we have made and am hopeful that it may inspire other Portland co-ops to follow suit.
In an effort to improve the teacher/ parent educator’s salary, while keeping tuition rates affordable for families according to their means, HFP instituted a sliding fee tuition scale, simultaneously raising tuition a year and a half ago. This enabled the board to offer me an annual salary of $35,000. This may not seem like an impressive salary for a full-time teacher with twenty-one years of teaching experience and a Master’s level education, but it’s about double what I earned when I started at HFP six years ago. I’ve worked with a rotating group of board members over the past six years to make significant improvements to my contract. I’m quite thankful to the multiple parents who partnered
with me, wrestling with the constraints of limited finances. We participated in multiple conversations, emails and meetings to get to the place we are today. Since HFP raised tuition via the sliding fee scale, many other co-op teachers and board members have grown curious about how we accomplished this. The families at HFP made a bold move with the hope of inspiring other Portland co-ops to consider how they might shift toward a more equitable model as well.
In October, we got to share our process with about twenty interested teachers and parents at a PCPO (Parent Child Preschools of Oregon) meeting. It’s satisfying to gather in a room full of parents and teachers who care deeply for young children; caregivers who want to do what’s in the best interest of the children we love. And it’s invigorating to share the process of a small community of families who grappled with the limitations of its budget and opted to valiantly raise tuition and institute a sliding fee tuition scale. In doing so we were able to generate more income for our experienced teacher, parent educator and school’s leader, without compromising the quality of the program by increasing class size.
At October’s early childhood advocacy meeting, we acknowledged that there is a broader early childhood crisis leaving most families meeting their children’s needs on their own, and that the lack of early childhood funding translates to under-compensated teachers — child care teachers and preschool teachers have low salaries and often do without medical and retirement benefits. And we touched on the potential advantages (financial relief) and challenges (dictating what we teach) we might face if government funded early childhood education.
As co-op preschools consider the possibility of raising compensation packages for teachers three main points stand out:
1. Participation in a cooperative preschool is a benefit to families. Many children thrive in co-ops as it’s a natural continuation of home, given their family is an integral part of their school. In a co-op, parents get to see their own child’s growth and get to see a broader range of development as they support (and come to adore) the rest of the children in the class. In the best of co-ops, families get to know and lean on each other, forming deep bonds and mutual respect. In an age of increased busyness and isolation, this community building is invaluable. Further, children aren’t the only ones to benefit from “hands on” learning. Parents also learn by doing as they partner with teachers in the classroom and get to observe teachers in action. Parenting skills improve thanks to co-op involvement. While parent cooperatives may have once been billed as a less expensive preschool option, I believe it’s time we start charging higher tuition rates for those who can afford it. Let’s focus on the extensive values a co-op offers and let go the notion that a co-op’s purpose is as a cost-saving measure.
2. Co-op teachers are more than children’s teachers. In many cases, we hold the vision and the institutional memory in our schools. As the volunteer parents move on each year, we are privy to information ranging from enrollment, fundraising, emergency preparedness, marketing, budgeting and community building. We maintain this information and relay it on to the parent volunteers taking on these various roles year after year. In this way, we are more like a director of a school than solely the children’s teacher.
3. We need to talk openly about finances if we are to make change. We need to break through teacher isolation and break through the notion that talking about money is taboo. There is value to open, honest sharing about what teachers earn (salary, benefits and working conditions) and how each program balances their budgets.
It’s not fair to expect teachers to subsidize the actual cost of care through low wages with no or little benefits. I’m grateful that this sentiment is understood and shared among the families at HFP. HFP made a bold move in raising tuition via the sliding fee tuition scale.
I am hopeful that other co-op teachers will talk openly with the families in their programs and seriously consider how they can stretch to better compensate their child’s teacher. It seems to me Portland’s ripe for change. Portland’s a progressive town that prides itself in being family-friendly. Let’s lead the way to a more equitable early childhood system here and now.