While debate rages on increasing the minimum wage locally and nationally, one unexpected group of workers earning close to the bottom of the scale stands to benefit if the floor is raised: preschool teachers.
Although a college degree is required for many teaching in early education, it's not unusual for a teacher to get about $11.75 an hour or $24,440 for the year. That salary puts a family of three or more below the federal poverty line.
The state minimum wage now stands at $9 an hour and will rise to $10 in 2016. But if the Los Angeles City Council joins Mayor Eric Garcetti in supporting an increase in the minimum wage to $13.25 an hour by 2017, the average preschool teacher could see an annual salary of $27,560.
An estimated 56,000 preschool teachers in California, mostly women of color, would be among those affected. Anabel Lopez could be one.
Lopez is a full-time preschool teacher in Long Beach at Comprehensive Child Development Center, a large provider of subsidized childcare and preschool.
She entered the field because she said loves seeing her preschoolers' eyes light up as they learn. “I just like to be able to work with the kids one-on-one, and to be able to, like, teach them new things and see them learn from one level to another level.”
Lopez is a single mother with two children and makes $11.75 an hour.
"I live right now with my parents, so they're helping me. I just recently moved. But paying the rent on my own, it was hard, it was difficult," she says.
Her pay is about average for preschool teachers, according to the Los Angeles County Office of Child Care, which conducted a comprehensive survey of pay for the early education workforce in 2002. Kathy Malaske-Samu, director of the office, said she is confident salaries have not risen much since then.
“Salaries are relatively low across the board,” said Malaske-Samu. For preschool teachers, the survey found the average hourly wage on the low side was $9.40 per hour and the average highest hourly wage was $14.33.
“Because of the recession, we saw that the early care and education sector in California lost about $10 million,” Malaske-Samu said. “That was a big hit to the field, and staff were not getting any cost of living increases, so we’re at a pretty desperate point.”
Even though preschool teachers' salaries skim the bottom, they are required to have an associate's degree and a teacher’s permit. Some have even more education. At L.A. Unified, one of the largest employers of preschool teachers, about 80 percent have a bachelor’s degree. Nationwide, in comparison, over half of the preschool teachers hold a college degree.
Yet many workers with fewer qualifications than preschool teachers earn more or equivalent pay. "We’ve seen some parking lot attendants making comparable salaries to early care and education teachers," Malaske-Samu said.
Fran Kipnis, a researcher at U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Child Care Employment, points out that for preschool teachers with a college degree, salaries have not kept up with other fields.
“We find that many folks who get a B.A. in early childhood or child development find that their wages are almost half of what women in the civilian labor force would be,” she said.
Accountants with a bachelor's degree, for example, made an average of $63,000 last year.
Richard Brandon, a senior research fellow at the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington, describes this pay differential between professions as a wage penalty, when higher education doesn’t translate to higher wages.
Brandon found the wage penalty fell on all early childhood educators, but was heaviest on teachers who care for children age 0 to 3.
“Overall, teachers and caregivers with a B.A. or higher serving children age three through five years earned $15.50 an hour, more than $4 an hour more than those with the same level of education but caring for younger children,” he said.
Kipnis from U.C. Berkeley said it's not easy for teachers who want to move from an associate's degree to a bachelor’s degree.
“For a lot of teachers of color, especially those that are older and are interested in going back and getting their B.A., there’s a lot of resources that goes into that,” she said.
The economic incentive may not justify it.
Angel Sosa works as a preschool teacher for Mexican American Opportunity Foundation, a nonprofit that receives state and federal funds to provide early education for low-income children. She is one credit shy of her associate's degree and wants to get her bachelor's degree, believing she might get paid more if she does.
Kipnis said this is often not the case. A bachelor's degree may bring only slightly more pay, but not a lot more, disappointing some teachers who end up leaving the field.
Claudia Iraheta wanted to be a Head Start teacher and so she put herself through night school to earn her bachelor's degree while raising her two small kids.
“After I got out of work, I would go home and feed [my kids] dinner and study and study,” she said. “On Saturday morning, I would go to my second job. There were many times when I cried on top of my books.”
But Iraheta persevered, and it paid off. She makes $20.84 an hour, significantly more than what most preschool teachers get. But there is a catch: she is only employed nine to 10 months of the year as the program closes for the summer. When it’s closed, she doesn’t get paid.
Finding a two-month job every year has been difficult. A couple of years ago, she couldn’t find work for the summer, swallowed her pride, and applied for food stamps.
“There was one of my ex-families there also putting in an application, and I felt devastated of the fact that she saw that I was there,” Iraheta said. “I felt embarrassed because I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, you have a degree and here you are asking for food stamps?’”
Tammie Kyle, a veteran in the field who has run preschool centers for Comprehensive Child Development for decades, pays a starting salary of $11.80 an hour for a qualified teacher – right on par with average preschool teacher salaries nationwide.
She wishes she could pay her teachers more. Yet, as a childcare center that serves low-income children, almost all of the center's income comes from state contracts and grants.
State contracts pay a low reimbursement rate, which barely covers the cost of the program, Kyle said. She writes grants to supplement her budget, but that's a challenge as well.
“If you say we’d like to raise $100,000 to pay each of our staff 50 cents more per hour, people don’t want to pay for that,” she said. “If we say we’d like to have funds to refurbish a playground, people are more apt to say, ‘Oh, that sounds like a good idea.’”