Teacher Gina Thompson sits on the floor as she cares for three infants at Parkside Children's Learning Center in Bangor in June. The center cares for 115-130 children a day with a staff of 34-45 full- and part-time teachers. (Kevin Bennett photo for Maine Public)
One of the biggest challenges Maine's child care industry faces is finding and retaining enough high-quality, trained workers to meet the demand across the state.
Many struggle to make a career — and a difference — in the traditionally high-stress, low-pay occupation.
Advocates say the state should play a stronger role in developing Maine’s early child education workforce, just as it promotes and enforces standards for children's health, safety and welfare.
By Maine Public staff June 24, 2019
Anne and Ivan Soto are just like many other young parents with limited incomes in Maine — they’re trying to figure out how to afford child care for their 2-year-old daughter, Maya, and a newborn son, Mateo.
"We don't have cable, we don't go on vacation, we don't go out to eat, we don't do those things because we're on a budget," Anne says, feeding Maya a snack.
For the Sotos, there's an ironic twist: They are both full-time workers at a Portland child-care center. Anne has a master’s in elementary education and runs a classroom. Ivan is just starting out in the field as a teacher's assistant.
A U.S. Department of Education survey in 2015 found that full-time child care workers in Maine earned the second-lowest annual median income in New England, at $21,580. And center directors say the low wages make it difficult for to attract and retain high-quality workers.
The Sotos placed their daughter at the child care center where the work, so they get a good rate — but they still pay $900 a month, about a fifth of their combined pre-tax salaries.
Anne testified to lawmakers this winter on a bill that would provide $2.5 million to supplement pay for early childhood teachers in Maine, based on education and experience, and give more money for student scholarships.
"Both my husband and I are employed full-time teaching preschool," she told the committee. "And yet still we are unable to afford to send our own children to a program without the assistance of a subsidy, and I am now facing a decision whether to stay in a profession that I really love, versus how am I going to pay for my next child."
Anne says she's straining just to pay just the interest on her college loans, never mind the principal. Her master’s degree in elementary education and experience in the field gives small advantage when it comes to pay, but it's still tough to make ends meet.
"The issue is that the early childhood workforce in Maine is very low wage," says Sonja Howard, executive director of Maine Roads To Quality, which provides training, continuing education and credentialing programs required for early childhood educators in state-licensed child care facilities.
Howard's group tries to keep costs down, but even once credentialed, early childhood educators in Maine still should expect meager paychecks.
"Eleven or $12 an hour is considered pretty typical in early education," she says. "I mean, you can also make that at Target and McDonald's. And that's a problem, that's a real problem, because what a person needs for a skill level to be working with children every day is really huge. You need to know so much to be effective."
Howard says there is anecdotal evidence that the number of college-level students enrolling in early childhood education courses is dropping in Maine. At the same time, the noncollege-level programs at Maine Roads To Quality have seen an uptick in enrollment. Howard says that may indicate that child care centers in Maine are being forced to hire teachers with less education.
Annie Colaluca, who directs the child care program at the Bath YMCA, says child care workers are often willing to contend with low pay because they are passionate about their work. But there aren't enough of them.
"It's a challenge in terms of finding qualified staff," she says. "But then retaining those highly qualified staff to stay within in this workforce, especially when it’s a labor of love and doesn't always make financial sense to continue doing this."
It took Colaluca six months last year to find someone qualified to teach children from infancy through 5 years old.
"I had zero people apply. I had this job posted on Indeed, it was going out on Facebook, it was posted on Serving Schools," she says, the latter referring to a database for education job postings.
The state's low unemployment rate is one factor. But another is the slow but steady increase in the number of public schools that are offering prekindergarten classes for 4-year-olds, as well as much better pay.
Camelia Babson-Haley, executive director of Youth & Family Outreach, a Portland child care center, says the rise of public pre-K is both an opportunity and a problem.
Her center contracts with the city to provide a public pre-K classroom, and that helps to support all of the center's services. She says that pay scales and benefits improve quickly in the public school setting. In Maine, she adds, the median pay for preschool teachers is almost 30 percent higher than for infant and toddler educators.
And she says that has to change.
"We're taking children at the most critical time in their lives, in terms of building that foundation and sending them off into the world to be ready do all the things we need to do," she says. "It will help if we have more public pre-K classrooms that are being paid at a public teacher's salary — you'll have more teachers getting paid better. But those [teaching ages] zero-to-three, all these teachers need to be paid better."
Todd Landry, the state's new leader for Maine's Office of Child and Family Services, says that's a challenge across the country.
He says that the federal government is increasing child care development grants to the state, and Maine in turn is increasing its subsidies for children who need child care to one of the highest levels in the nation.
And that, Landry says, should lead to higher pay for frontline educators here.
More than a decade ago, FHC's founder says he realized that employees needed dependable child care — so he opened one.
"That's the whole intent," he says. "That helps to improve the quality, that helps to improve the sustainability of the programs. That helps to increase the retention of staff within those programs. All of those things are a cumulative effect that we want to work on."
The state Department of Labor is also piloting a tuition assistance program for students in early childhood education. And the Maine Legislature this month gave initial approval to a measure supporting education and retention of Maine’s child care workforce through salary and tuition assistance for those who have or are seeking higher levels of training and education.
But lawmakers did not come up with the necessary funds, so the measure will be reconsidered next year.
The Sotos, meanwhile, are just hoping for some kind of relief.
"We might just be stuck in this for a while, and if that's the case then families will have to make their own choices about what they can or can't do and how long you can make it work in this field. But you have to be hopeful that it will change at some point," Anne says.
The Sotos say that with the new baby, one of them may indeed have to drop out of the child care field and find a better-paying job — or possibly even stay home with the kids.
The state’s roughly 1,800 licensed child care facilities have the capacity to serve more than 45,000 children. For infant and toddler care, there are two basic types of licenses, good for two years: Family Child Care Programs are in-home situations where 3-12 children can receive care, and Child Care Centers are licensed for 13 children and more. Nursery schools must be licensed as well.
Nicole Reasoner, a pediatric nurse, is getting ready to open a new child care facility in Gorham with a friend. She recently attended a peer meeting sponsored by Maine Roads To Quality, the state's primary child care training partner.
"I have my final fire inspection tomorrow and then I have to call my licensing rep and let her know I am ready for final inspection," she says. "So there's just a few little tidbits I've got to finish up."
Until Maine Public made a freedom of access request, the state's website did not include any details of the actual violations that occurred.
That means contending with rules and regulations from the Department of Health and Human Services that run 30 pages long. Reasoner needs to demonstrate compliance with requirements for everything from teacher background checks and training, to covering electrical outlets, making sure that breast milk is properly stored and providing a positive environment for the kids.
Under Maine rules, Reasoner's business should also have formal safety plans in place, a parent handbook available, careful record-keeping, food and medicine storage and set ratios for teachers for each age group of children. Those ratios call for no more than four infants per staff member in the room, and as many as ten 5-year-olds per teacher.
"Here in Maine, child care is very safe," says Janet Whitten, who manages the state's child care licensing and enforcement division. "There aren't a lot of serious injuries, there aren't a lot of deaths and it's a fact."
She says that starting five years ago, compliance with state regulations has steadily improved. That was around the time the federal government issued a critical report on Maine's enforcement abilities, and significant child-safety issues at a Lyman child care center drew intense media attention.
Subsequently the agency hired 16 new inspectors, reducing the caseloads for workers from 180 to the federally recommended standard of 80. State statistics show that from Oct. 2017 to Sept. 2018, there were no deaths at Maine child care facilities, seven serious injuries and three cases of child abuse.
"After this period of increasing the number of inspections and decreasing the caseload, we really had a shift in the number of providers coming back into compliance or being in compliance," Whitten says, adding that improved compliance rates allowed some of those new inspectors to shift to other duties. "We didn't feel that we needed that many staff [in the field]."
In response to revamped federal rules, the state improved the transparency of its licensing and enforcement work. The agency created a website — childcarechoices.me — that allows parents to search for providers by location and click through to see licenses and other documents.
It includes a numerical score for facilities that participate in the national Quality Rating and Improvement System. A score of 1 means the facility meets all regulatory standards; 4 means it meets the highest level of staff training and education and hasn't had any violations in at least three years.
Landry, the state's new chief of family and child services, notes that facilities in Maine that achieve higher standards get a bump in state subsidies for children enrolled in them.
"The latest move on the reimbursement rate for providers is up to 75 percent of the market rate," he says. "Maine is now the sixth in the country to be reimbursing at the 75 percent level or higher. So that's a positive move that we continue to build on, and I believe the quality bump is in addition to that."
When researching a facility's record, one thing to watch out for is a "conditional license," which the state issues when an inspector finds violations. Compliance chief Whitten says when that happens, her staff will work with the facility to deploy a "directed plan" that leads to timely compliance — and those plans are available on the website.
"It's not a 'gotcha' type approach," she says. "We're trying to keep providers substantially in compliance with the rules so that children are safe."
Providers can expect at least one inspection a year, and the agency routinely makes unannounced inspections as well, with higher frequency at facilities where there have been complaints or deficiencies have been found.
Correction: Anne Soto holds a master’s in elementary education, not a degree in early childhood education. An earlier version of this story made an errant reference to DHHS' Office of Child and Family Services. That specific DHHS office is not responsible for child care licensing.