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Head Start preschools aim to fight poverty, but their teachers struggle to make ends meet

WASHINGTON (AP) — In some ways, Doris Milton is a Head Start success story. She was a student in one of Chicago’s inaugural Head Start classes, when the antipoverty program, which aimed to help children succeed by providing them a first-rate preschool education, was in its infancy.

Milton loved her teacher so much that she decided to follow in her footsteps. She now works as a Head Start teacher in Chicago.

After four decades on the job, Milton, 63, earns $22.18 an hour. Her pay puts her above the poverty line, but she is far from financially secure. She needs a dental procedure she cannot afford, and she is paying down $65,000 of student loan debt from National Louis University, where she came within two classes of getting her bachelor's degree. She dropped out in 2019 when she fell ill.

“I’m trying to meet their needs when nobody’s meeting mine,” Milton said of teaching preschoolers.

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Head Start teachers — 70% of whom have bachelor’s degrees — earn $39,000 a year on average, far less than public school teachers with similar credentials. President Joe Biden wants to raise their pay, but Congress has no plans to expand the Head Start budget.

Many have left the job — about one in five teachers turned over in 2022 — for higher-paying positions at restaurants or in retail. But if Head Start centers are required to raise teacher pay without additional money, operators say they would have to cut how many kids they serve.

The Biden administration says the program is already turning kids away because so many teachers have left, and not enough workers are lining up to take their places. And officials say it does not make sense for an anti-poverty program, where people of color make up 60% of the workforce, to underpay its employees.

“We have some teachers who are making poverty wages themselves, which undermines the original intent of the program,” said Katie Hamm, a deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Early Childhood Development.

Head Start, created as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” serves some of the neediest children, including those who are homeless, in foster care or come from households falling below the federal poverty line. With child care prices exceeding college tuition in many states, Head Start is the only option within financial reach for many families.

The Department of Health and Human Services, which administers the program, estimates a pay hike would not have a huge effect on the number of children served because so many programs already struggle to staff all their classrooms. Altogether, Head Start programs receive enough funding to cover the costs of 755,000 slots. But many programs can't fully enroll because they don't have enough teachers. It's why the department estimates only about 650,000 of those slots are getting filled.

The proposed change would force Head Start programs to downsize permanently because they would not be able to afford as many teachers.

That worries Head Start leaders, even though many of them back raising pay for their employees, said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director for the National Head Start Association. The association asked the Biden administration to allow some programs to opt out of the requirements.

“We love this idea, but it’s going to cost money,” Sheridan said. “And we don’t see Congress appropriating that money overnight.”

While a massive cash infusion does not appear forthcoming, other solutions have been proposed.

On Monday, the Biden administration published a letter urging school districts to direct more of the federal money they receive toward early learning, including Head Start.

On Thursday, U.S. Reps. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., and Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz., filed a bill that would allow Head Start to hire community college students who are working toward their associate degrees in child development.

The stakes are perhaps highest for rural Head Starts. A program outside of Anchorage, Alaska, is closing one of its five sites while struggling with a shortage of workers. Program director Mark Lackey said the heart-wrenching decision allowed him to raise pay for the remaining workers in hopes of reducing staff turnover.

“It hurts, and we don’t want to do it,” Lackey said. “But at the same time, it feels like it’s kind of necessary.”

Overall, his program has cut nearly 100 slots because of a staffing shortage. And the population he serves is high-need: About half the children are homeless or in foster care. The Biden proposal could force the program to contract further.

Amy Esser, the executive director of Mercer County Head Start in rural western Ohio, said it’s been difficult to attract candidates to fill a vacant teaching position because of the low pay. Starting pay at Celina City Schools is at least $5,000 more than at Head Start, and the jobs require the same credentials.

But she warned hiking teacher pay could have disastrous consequences for her program, and for the broader community, which has few child care options for low-income households.

“We would be cut to extinction,” Esser wrote in a letter to the Biden administration, “leaving children and families with little to no opportunity for a safe, nurturing environment to achieve school readiness.”

Arlisa Gilmore, a longtime Head Start teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, said if it were up to her, she would not sacrifice any slots to raise teacher pay. She makes $25 an hour and acknowledges she’s lucky: She collects rental income from a home she owns and shares expenses with her husband. The children in her classroom are not so fortunate.

“I don’t think they should cut classrooms,” Gilmore said. “We have a huge community of children that are in poverty in my facility.”

Milton, the Chicago teacher, wonders why there has to be such a difficult trade-off at all.

“Why can’t it be, ‘Let’s help both’? Why do we got to pick and choose?” Milton said. “Do we not deserve that? Don’t the kids deserve that?”

___

The Associated Press’ education coverage receives financial support from multiple private foundations. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

Moriah Balingit, The Associated Press