For years, around 9,000 Pennsylvania child care workers received money from the state in recognition that they’d earned additional credentials. The award — the median amount was $1,500 — was a bonus of sorts, meant to keep qualified early childhood workers in a field marked by low pay and high turnover.
But during the pandemic, the “education and retention awards” disappeared when the state reallocated the funds to give $600 relief payments to a much larger pool of child care workers.
Some early childhood leaders and former award recipients are frustrated by the move, saying the shift hurt child care teachers and directors who worked hard to further their education and marks a retreat in the state’s efforts to boost child care quality. While state officials argue that the $600 relief award benefited many more workers during a time of great need, advocates say the amount was meager — in some cases amounting to only $320 after taxes.
Now, as Pennsylvania officials decide how to divvy up more than a billion in federal aid for early childhood efforts, many in the field want the education and retention awards restored. A new report by a coalition of early childhood groups notes that providers at all 12 of the group’s recent public forums spoke about wanting the awards to continue.
“It just goes to show this is an issue that’s really important to the workforce right now, at a time when labor shortage is the main story on every newspaper page,” said Mai Miksic, early childhood policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, a coalition member.
Samantha Rodriguez, originally a teacher and now the director at The Children’s Playhouse Early Learning Center in Philadelphia’s Newbold neighborhood, first got the education and retention award after earning her bachelor’s degree in 2019. She said the switch from awards based on education to awards that went to almost everyone felt unfair.
“So many years of schooling and this is what I get?” said Rodriquez, a single mom who attended classes at night to earn her degree.
In fiscal year 2019-20, about 9,200 child care teachers and directors across Pennsylvania received education and retention awards, in amounts ranging from $290 to $4,120. Recipients could apply for the awards annually for earning certain kinds of credentials, such as an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree or a master’s degree in early childhood education.
The amount of the award depended on their role, hours, level of education, and their facility’s state rating. Employees were eligible if they worked for child care providers with one of the top three state ratings — Star 2, Star 3 or Star 4. They also had to have worked at their child care job for 12 consecutive months and couldn’t earn more than $40,000 a year as teachers or $50,000 as directors.
Diane Barber, executive director of the Pennsylvania Child Care Association, said the awards — often called ERA — have been tweaked over their 17-year-history, but “were always there to help acknowledge people staying in a field that was underpaid but also for achieving educational milestones.”
She called the elimination of the awards during the pandemic “demoralizing” and said by taking money from one group of workers to spread more thinly among a larger group, “it pitted the industry against itself.”
Officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services declined an interview request from Chalkbeat to discuss the education and retention award program, but provided written answers to some questions.
They said they haven’t analyzed whether the program helped stabilize the early childhood workforce and reduce staff turnover, but have heard anecdotally from providers that those goals were met.
Asked if the program will be reinstated, they wrote “Plans for next year have not been finalized” and that efforts to recruit and retain child care workers will be priorities as the state spends $1.2 billion in early childhood funding from the federal American Rescue Plan pot.
While it’s clear that the $600 relief payments helped more child care workers — about 38,000 — compared with the education and retention awards, what’s fuzzier is whether those smaller payments made a difference in recipients’ lives.
Barber said after taxes, the relief payments may not have even covered a month of auto insurance in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, she estimated that some child care employees lost 9% to 14% of their annual income by not receiving their usual education and retention awards.
Both education and retention awards and the $600 relief payments are considered taxable income, according to state officials.
Asked if the $600 awards had the desired impact, state officials wrote, “We are grateful to have had the funding available to distribute to all eligible child care workers who, while experiencing a pandemic and its economic impacts, showed up daily to provide care for children.”
Mary Graham, executive director of the top-rated Children’s Village in Philadelphia, said typically, more than half of her 44 staff members qualified for the education and retention awards.
She said the program was an incentive for staff to seek more training: “Hey, go back to school. You’ll get a raise here and you’ll be eligible for the ERA award.”
Graham believes the awards reduced turnover at Children’s Village, where some staff members have stayed on for decades. Teachers there were “very disappointed” when the awards were eliminated this year, she said.
“If your goal in the state is to have high quality, why would you take away the supports for high quality?” she said.