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The Long Road to Paying ECE Professionals Their Worth: One Provider’s Yearslong Effort

February 7, 2023

In this blog, Anna Mercer-Mclean details how she has utilized funding to increase salaries and benefits for her employees and her strategies to sustain providing ECE professionals their worth.

Anna Mercer-McLean

For over 31 years, Anna has been director of Community School for People under Six, a five-star licensed child care center with an amazing staff of early educators, in Carrboro, NC. She has been a long-time advocate of accessible, affordable, and quality early care and education and a well-compensated workforce. She currently is the president of the NC Institute for Child Development Professionals (NCICDP–the Institute) and co-chair of the Advancing the Education of the Workforce Workgroup, serves on the Outreach and Public Awareness Committee, and has been president of the Institute. Anna serves on the board of the Orange County Partnership for Young Children (first NC Smart Start agency) and has served on numerous other national, state, and local boards and committees through the years, including NAEYC, NCaeyc, and NCPC. She has presented at numerous national, state, and local conferences.

Anna holds a Level 12 Early Educator Certification, a Master’s in Business Education and Bachelor’s in Business Administration, both from NC Central University. She took coursework in early childhood education from UNC Chapel Hill and Durham Technical Community College. She is a wife, mother of three, and grandmother of five. God is first in her life, followed by family and the joy of giving back through community service.

As I looked about on my first day 31 years ago in my North Carolina child center, I saw children running around in a classroom at nap time, some cursing like sailors as the teacher worked to calm the room, while the student substitute looked on and felt discipline was not her responsibility. Staff were making minimum wage, and there was a teacher shortage. My immediate goal was to change the trajectory.

Knowing that you can’t expect good teachers if you don’t pay them a decent salary, I sought to get them higher compensation. But my board repeatedly denied the request. Eventually, I created a reason why teachers deserved more pay. I laid out a plan to identify the current nomenclature of our staff roles, i.e., Master Teacher I and II, Lead Teacher and Teacher, Assistant I and II. When the board saw the various responsibilities, they agreed to give the staff the raises I proposed; however, we had to provide the increase in two increments, one half at a time.

We created a salary scale in 2005 that we tweaked several times based on the original model scale designed by the North Carolina Institute for Child Development Professionals. With the development of the North Carolina Model Salary Scale, we enhanced our salary scale in October 2021 and extended the scale from 15 years to 30 based on salary/experience. This change was aimed at providing salary increases based on the number of years people have been in the field. Previously, there had been nothing set in stone as to what a new employee might earn after being hired because we couldn’t guarantee a salary increase or bonus each year. Creating this scale allowed us to bring everybody’s income to where it should be based on years of experience.

Fast forward to 2021, when we received a stabilization grant–the greatest amount of federal/state grant money our center has ever received to support fixed expenses and compensation. Prior to the grant, our cafeteria plan had been funded by child tuition. Now the grant pays for better staff benefits. We were able to use an optional part of the grant—Option 2 Compensation Supports–to enhance those benefits, increasing the monthly total employees receive from $150 to $500. However, while these funds have allowed us to provide higher quality benefits through April 2023, the extra $350 is temporary because we can’t sustain it. Our goal is to at least sustain the salary piece once the funds are gone. The struggle for me as a director is how to keep providing increased salaries and benefits. Two strategies are essential.

  1. Maintain Enrollment
    We can enroll up to 52 children, but right now we only have 33. It’s a challenge to maintain the maximum number because it’s based on the number of teachers we have employed. The greatest need is spaces for young toddlers (one-two-year-olds), but we don’t have a second young-toddler teacher to increase our enrollment from four to seven. We also need an infant teacher. We have five spaces in the infant room but can only enroll three, so that’s two empty spaces. We compete against other businesses: one possible reason for this ongoing need for teachers is that some can pay up to $3,000 signing bonuses while we can only pay $500. We also compete with the public schools, which can pay higher salaries and benefits. In order to sustain our child care center, we have to maintain a higher enrollment; that requires maintaining skilled teachers who are well compensated, as well.Sometimes, maintaining enrollment means that there may or may not be an immediate need. For example, our pre-K classroom can serve nine children. But, we don’t have enough children in that class right now who have applied and are qualified in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro area. However, there is a greater need to serve this population in other parts of Orange County. Of course, that decreases our income because we’re only paid the per child contracted rate for the number of children that are enrolled in the classroom versus a classroom flat rate that we were previously paid, and we’re holding those empty slots without income to fill with pre-K eligible children. There are challenges at every turn. The teacher for the pre-k group has to be paid at the public-school compensation level, but that’s difficult to do when your contract rate per child coming in is less than the hourly or salaried rate the teacher is paid. We have to be creative in seeking other financial resources to cover these differences.
  2. Ensure Funding
    We can’t increase our tuition rates because we know families can’t afford it. And our subsidized families can’t afford the difference between the market rate and the tuition that the state pays for them. So, we cover that cost for them when possible. To make sure that we can have continued funding, I have to advocate for those families who most need help, such as our middle-income families. We have created scholarships for families who are struggling with the cost of child care, and we have to seek other resources for our families or ways to bring in additional dollars to meet their needs. We’ve created GoFundMe campaigns and have had families selling candy on the center’s behalf. But our challenge with those kinds of fundraisers is that we have very few families who can achieve high-dollar fundraising.We receive donations from people in the community who know about the school and how long we’ve been here and who want to help, and from parents whose children have attended our center and who want to give back. They’re one of the reasons we continue to survive.

Why I’m Still Here and What We Still Need

What keeps me going in this work is both the children’s joy and the love they give and the teachers, most of whom have been here over 20 years. It makes a big difference that we all have common goals and dreams in terms of where we want children and families to be. Shared commitment makes a big difference as to why people stay at a job.

We’ve always tried to pay competitive salaries, but we still have room for growth in that area. I try to make up for it with small gifts on holidays or a bonus or a day off, anything to help make the teachers feel a part of the center and excited about the work. We’ve become a family in the last 31 years. Siblings sometimes fuss and argue, but in the end, we are all still family. We just love each other.

But that’s not enough to sustain a 5-star licensed child care center. Public funding, like the stabilization grants that have allowed centers to sustain through COVID, increased market rates at the current year’s rate, business/organization support for child care for employees, federal and state set aside dollars, etc. are needed to ensure that high-quality child care continues in North Carolina.

I believe I changed the trajectory of the center since I walked in the door three decades ago. The children are engaged, and the teachers make more than minimum wage. We are now an Orange County Living Wage Employer. What a difference! However, North Carolina has a long way to go in terms of compensation. Economically, this community, this state can’t survive without quality child care. Ultimately, we have to put systems and plans in place that are going to allow our early care and education professionals to continue to do this work and be here to care and educate children and support their families. We need to open our eyes and our hearts, and we must listen; then we have to roll up our sleeves and go to work for children, early educators, and families. Together, we can make a difference! That’s what we at Community school for People under Six want to see happen.

Check out the Improving Child Care Compensation Video Series to hear more from Anna Mercer-McLean and other leaders whose work is covered in the Improving Child Care Compensation Backgrounder 2021.

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