Wolf, lawmakers need to close the early childhood education pay gap | Opinion                     

February 10, 2020 6:30 am

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf delivers his sixth budget address to a joint session of the general assembly inside the House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday, December 13, 2019 (Photo from Commonwealth Media Services).

By Kathleen McHale

Funding levels for programs that are a core responsibility of government were again neglected in Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2020 budget proposal.

Although Wolf touts that his administration places the highest priority on such issues as early childhood, vulnerable populations and workforce wages, there was no provision for essential human service and early childhood education programs to receive even the most minimal increases to pass on to their workforce who have been systematically and chronically underpaid.

Government is the sole funder for these programs and there is a failure in this budget to cross walk the administration’s values to the reality of citizens who are charged each day with providing critical direct services to the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable or youngest citizens and yet remain as the working poor.

There are 55,000 people who work as direct support professionals in Pennsylvania and all of them are severely underpaid from any perspective.

They are highly trained and take on the challenge of full integration of adults with intellectual disability and autism in daily community life while assuring the health, safety, and all other aspects of life’s needs and lifestyle choices for people with complex support needs.

Their average pay is $13.20/hr. Contrast this with the pay for the state center direct support professionals at 30 percent to 60 percent more, with top flight benefits who are not required to do many of the core responsibilities that community-based direct support professionals must perform. This includes medication administration and preparation of nutritious and diet compliant meals.

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This is a pay disparity that comes from severe underfunding of the community system for people with intellectual disability and autism.

Similarly, the state requires teachers who work in early childhood education to possess the same certifications as those who work in public schools.

Added to this, there is a requirement that every early childhood education classroom of over 10 children have not only a teacher, but also a qualified teacher assistant.

There is no such requirement once Kindergarten begins. Based on the per child rate the state pays as the sole funder for early childhood education, wages for teachers are about half of what K-12 teachers earn and teacher assistants earn poverty level wages.

Of course these positions are predominantly performed by women. Many are heads of households and unable to make ends meet for their families.

They are food and housing insecure. They have little hope that their situation will change no matter how many years they devote to the care and better life of others.

As qualified, educated and trained employees are forced to leave these positions to improve their own lives, service continuity and quality so critical for people with intellectual disability and autism and for young children declines. It becomes impossible to hire good candidates for open positions.

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People and families who need these services experience both declining access and increased insecurity and potential for harm.

What seems to be ignored in this proposed budget and in the many that have come before, is the underlying injustice that these core functions of government are literally “funded” on the backs of underpaid direct support professionals, early childhood teachers, and others who work in these systems that are so needed by society.

It is time for a wake-up call in Harrisburg. This work that the state needs to be done by Pennsylvania citizens requires a fair price tag. It’s time to increase the rates the state pays to fund these services.

Kathleen McHale is the president and CEO of SPIN (Special People in the Northeast), a Philadelphia-based provider of supports for people with autism and developmental disabilities.

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