Without Changes, Head Start Director Worries Wage Increase Could Squeeze Families On Eligibility | WGLT

Without Changes, Head Start Director Worries Wage Increase Could Squeeze Families On Eligibility

Apr 2, 2019

The director of a local early childhood education program says she’s concerned that the state’s increasing minimum wage could have unintended consequences for her families.

To qualify for Heartland Head Start, a family of four needs to make less than $25,000 a year, barring other circumstances. Head Start Executive Director Karen Bruning said she’s worried that the new minimum wage—rising from $8.25 to $15 over the next six years—could inadvertently knock some families out of income eligibility for her program and other income-based services.

“That not only affects their ability to raise a family and do what they need to do, but it also affects our program as far as being able to serve those we’re intended to serve,” Bruning said. 

Bruning said Head Start’s income guidelines are established by the federal government, which she hopes will change them so that families from states like Illinois aren’t capped off from services they need. She said she’s already raised the issue with state lawmakers.

Head Start is largely federally funded, with additional money from local sources.

Bruning said she is also concerned that the higher minimum wage may compress the salary scale for her employees, meaning newer staff would make closer to what an experienced teacher does.

Heartland Head Start now has 95 employees, preparing over 300 children (from 6 weeks to 5 years old) and their families for kindergarten. Employee turnover is high, Bruning said, and teachers often “get snapped up” by public school districts. The qualifications for Head Start’s staff are higher than a traditional child care or day care program, which bumps up the salaries, she said.

“We do have a lot of entry-level staff. And we have been increasing their salaries over the past three years to prepare (for the higher minimum wage),” Bruning said. “As our career ladder and our qualifications increase, we increase the pay. But as the base increases, then it makes it a little harder to manage.”

Early childhood education is an underpaid field. The median hourly wage for a full-time early childhood teacher in 2017 was $12.50 per hour, or $26,000 per year, according to a 2017 survey from the Illinois Department of Human Services. The top reason early childhood teachers left their jobs willingly was dissatisfaction with pay or benefits, the survey found.

“It’s underappreciated. The importance (of early childhood education) has been shared, and we have tons of research that support what it is we’re saying. But it’s hard to make decisions and spend money on the front end. And those are the things we struggle with,” Bruning said.

Listen to GLT’s full interview with Bruning below, including her reaction to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s universal child care proposal and what lessons it can take from the Head Start program.

You can also listen to the full interview:

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