Here’s how Hawaii is trying to improve access to childcare

In 2004, Dana Senaha was a fresh graduate of Vanderbilt University’s Masters in Early Childhood Education program and had completed all work except a thesis for a Ph.D.

She returned home to Hawaii that year to teach at Cole Academy, a private preschool in Honolulu, where she served as a lead teacher and administrator.

Even with his college education, Senaha’s salary was just under $30,000 a year.

“It was par for the course,” Senaha said of his salary, adding that it was comparable to similar early teaching jobs in Nashville, Tennessee, where Vanderbilt is located.

But Senaha wanted to be home. She lived with her parents to help offset the high cost of living and pay off student loans.

But even then, “it just wasn’t sustainable,” Senaha said.

She left Cole Academy after less than a year to accept a higher-paying, entry-level marketing assistant position outside of education.

The number of available daycare spaces in Hawaii has decreased by 15% due to the effects of the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Senaha’s experience captures the challenges of the early childhood education industry in Hawaii and across the country. Salaries are low, leading to a labor shortage that contributes to the limited number of places available, while tuition at private centers is often out of financial reach for many working families.

The pandemic has made the statistics even grimmer, as Covid restrictions and rising costs cut capacity at Hawaii’s childcare providers by 15%, from 23,803 seats to 20,157, according to Early Childhood Action Strategy.

“Even before the pandemic, child care was a fragile industry,” said Barbara DeBaryshe, acting director and specialist at the University of Hawaii Center on the Family. “There was a high turnover rate (of workers) but it has gotten worse since Covid due to the high stress of the conditions.”

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President Joe Biden has made expanding access to child care and early learning a priority of his now stalled Build Back Better national economic plan, highlighting this need in his recent State of the Union address.

Some parts of the country are tackling the problem head-on. Falling child care wages prompted the District of Columbia to approve a plan last month distributing one-time direct payments ranging from $10,000 to $14,000 to child care workers.

Nationally, the average annual salary for a child care worker is $26,790 and the average hourly wage is $12.88 per hour, according to statistics from the States Bureau of Labor. States as of May 2020. The numbers aren’t much different in Hawaii, where the average annual salary for a babysitter is $27,840 and the average hourly wage is just over $13 per hour.

But the problem is particularly acute here due to the high cost of living.

Early education advocates hope a framework passed by the Hawaii Legislative Assembly in 2020 to expand access to early education, including child care and pre-kindergarten, will help bolster efforts of this session to increase compensation for child care workers through a one-year pilot program and offer stipends to recent HU graduates who commit to teaching in early childhood education for at least two years.

“I think everyone is aware that we have to take baby steps,” said Hawaiian Senator Bennette Misalucha, who supports the proposals. “We are not going to solve our problems in a year, but it will give us enough (momentum) to determine the next steps.”

The Access to Learning Bill of 2020 became Law 46, which was amended a year later as Law 210 due to pandemic conditions.

The latest plan sets out a commitment to enroll all 3- and 4-year-olds in Hawaii in a preschool program by December 2032. About half of this age group currently does not have access.

The law contains other provisions, including requiring the Hawaii Department of Education to conduct a kindergarten entrance assessment and authorizing the DOE to accept private funds to establish public preschool programs.

Some bills from this session reflect steps to achieve the overarching goals of the law.

St. Ann's School early learning classroom with students and plastic barriers as protection during in-person lessons.
Hawaii passed a law in 2020 that aims to improve access to preschool education for all 3- and 4-year-olds by 2032. One of the obstacles to this goal is labor shortages. in preschool education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Senate Bill 2701 proposes a one-year pilot program to raise the wages of child care workers to at least $17 an hour for 5% of 4,000 workers, or about 200 people. A related House bill, House Bill 1940, proposed a similar model with a higher minimum wage of $18 an hour, but failed to pass the Finance Committee.

“We have a labor shortage,” said Kathleen Algire, director of early learning and health policy at Hawaii Children’s Action Network Speaks. “This must be resolved, otherwise we will not be able to develop and expand our programs.”

A separate part of these bills proposes an unspecified appropriation to pay stipends to those who enter the child care or early education sector for at least two consecutive years.

“That’s always been one of the bottlenecks – (a lack of) early educators in the pipeline,” said Rep. Justin Woodson, chairman of the House Education Committee that backs the proposal. “We think (the stipend) will help recruit new teachers.”

The capacity and cost of daycare services vary from island to island. Tuition at an approved Family and Toddler Center can cost anywhere from $580 per month on the island of Hawaii to $1,100 per month in Honolulu, according to the University of Hawaii’s Center on Family. ‘Hawaii. A licensed private preschool can cost anywhere from $560 to $930 per month, or even over $1,000, depending on the region.

Child care centers were among the establishments that remained open throughout the pandemic as they were considered essential businesses, especially for parents working in industries like health care and emergency services.

Yet, according to DeBaryshe of the UH Center on the Family, Hawaii has lost 15% of its child care spaces during the pandemic due to a combination of forces: restrictions on class size early on, increased operating costs and turnover. Staff.

Her center launched a website in the summer of 2021 to show childcare availability in the state, including cost, location and whether the facility is of high quality.

“The reality is that where you live (in the islands) strongly determines what’s available to you,” she said. Most children in the city of Honolulu can access at least one child care provider, but 40% of children on the island of Hawaii do not have access to a provider within 30 minutes accessible by public transport, according to the data.

Meanwhile, demand for places in the DOE’s public pre-kindergarten program exceeds supply so far for the 2022-23 school year. More than 600 applications were received for just 405 spots available at the end of February, according to the state’s Executive Office on Early Learning.

Another bill introduced this session attempts to collect demographic data on the child care workforce. It would take $80 million to demand that the Department of Social Services, which licenses and regulates child care centers, create a registry of child care workers, including their median hourly wage, gender, age, education level or their duration of training.

The goal is to examine who comprises Hawaii’s child care workforce and why people are leaving the industry, Misalucha said.

“When you think about it, it should be a no-brainer,” she said of the bill’s passage. “How can you (achieve the goals of Bill 46) without knowing more about the early childhood educators who work in these programs? »

In a separate effort, the University of Hawaii College of Education recently commissioned a study of early childhood educator compensation with the goal of possibly increasing their compensation, said Theresa Lock, director of UH Early Childhood Educator, Excellence and Equity Project.

“It’s really a way of educating our decision makers on these issues,” she said of the significance of the study, which won’t be completed until July.

The three largest sectors of child care providers include preschools, infant and toddler centers, and home child care providers. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

Early education advocates say that as much attention should be paid to recruiting and retaining the workforce of early educators as K-12 teachers, because studies show that high quality childcare and preschool help in a child’s development and lead to greater academic and emotional success. results on the road.

Senaha, the former Cole Academy teacher, eventually returned to the early education field by finding a teaching position at Kamehameha Schools which paid its early childhood educators at the same level as older grade levels. . She won nearly $40,000 with a full benefits package. She stayed there for nine years.

Now a mother of two sons aged 4 and 7, Senaha was able to rely on her parents to help her look after the children when she became a parent. She says she and her husband are also lucky to be able to afford tuition at Makiki Christian Church Preschool.

“Those of us who teach do it out of love,” she said, adding that many of those she knows in the industry have spouses who can help support the household.

As for early childhood educators who aren’t associated, she says they live modestly or live at home with their parents — just like Senaha did when she was in her late twenties and moved back to Hawaii. .

“If we want to go to work, we need to have a place where our children can learn safely,” she said. “A lot of it is…knowing that those people who are caring for them are qualified to do it.”

Civil Beat health coverage is backed by the Atherton Family FoundationSwayne Family Fund of Hawaii Community Foundation, Cooke Foundation and Papa Ola Lokahi.

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