Teacher Shortages Force Dozens of California Preschools to Close Classrooms

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An empty preschool classroom with chairs on desks.
A closed classroom at Old Gallinas Children's Center in San Rafael on Sept. 29, 2022. Funding is available, and plenty of families are waiting to enroll, but a teacher shortage has forced California to close classrooms since the start of the school year. A statewide survey of government-contracted early education programs last month indicate that they could be missing 4,000 to 5,000 teachers. (Daisy Nguyen/KQED)

A severe teacher shortage has forced dozens of preschools in California to shut down some of their classrooms since the start of the school year.

The funding for these subsidized classrooms is available, and plenty of children from lower-income families are waiting to enroll. But there aren’t enough teachers — a situation that could get worse as the state begins to pour billions of dollars into transitional kindergarten, threatening to destabilize the early education workforce.

“We have over 25 classrooms that we can put kids in, but we don’t have employees,” said Donna Sneeringer, chief strategy officer at the Child Care Resource Center, which serves children in Head Start programs in Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties.

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When she began comparing notes with other child care agencies in Southern California, the number grew to 100.

Her findings prompted a statewide survey of government-contracted early education programs last month. According to the survey, which had about a 20% response rate, there are a total of almost 1,300 unfilled teacher positions. That means, overall, these programs serving the state’s children from lower-income families could be missing 4,000 to 5,000 teachers, according to Christopher Maricle, executive director of Head Start California, which conducted the survey along with the advocacy group EveryChild California.

The staggering numbers didn’t surprise him. 

Low wages were driving away early childhood educators, who are overwhelmingly women of color, long before the pandemic began. But the physical, mental and financial stress they endured during the public health crisis, and the recession, accelerated their Great Resignation. Some teachers moved to more affordable locations, while others chose early retirement or left for better-paying jobs in other industries.

Some are also shifting to public schools, where they stand to double their salaries as widening access to transitional kindergarten opens new job opportunities for them — and threatens to destabilize the already fragile child care industry.

“It’s the perfect, horrible storm,” said Maricle, who thinks the expansion of TK starting this school year in California exacerbated the staffing problem. “You’ve got inflation, you’ve got a rising minimum wage that makes it more attractive for people who are in Head Start to make similar wages at McDonald’s. Then there was the pandemic, which made it harder to enroll families, and the stress of doing the work really increased for the staff.

“All of those pressures together are just putting enormous stress on the system.”

TK was established in California a decade ago to provide an extra year of schooling for kids who narrowly miss the cutoff to go to kindergarten. Last year, California lawmakers transformed the state’s early learning system by committing $2.7 billion toward expanding the program to all 4-year-olds. 

It was a victory for advocates, who asserted that a universal program will lift children’s early development and lead to long-term success, such as a greater likelihood of graduating high school and attending college. 

By the 2025-26 school year, universal TK could cover more than 300,000 children. To ensure that they get the attention they need, state law requires significantly lowering the student-to-teacher ratio. In previous years, a teacher could lead a TK classroom of up to 31 students. But starting this school year, the ratio dramatically lowered to one teacher for every 12 students.

The demand will require upward of 15,500 new teachers and 19,500 teacher aides by full implementation, according to estimates by the Learning Policy Institute in Palo Alto. 

Tens of thousands of teachers at home- or community-based preschools who already have a college degree and experience working with 4-year-olds could be qualified to teach TK. In the Bay Area, a preschool teacher making an average salary of $51,500 could earn nearly $85,000 teaching TK, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. 

The state agency in charge of licensing professional educators is working to adopt a credentialing program to teach TK through third grade, and California is investing more than $2.5 billion to train new teachers. 

“It’s fantastic to see, finally, doors are opening for early childhood educators that are beginning to lead to professional wages,” said Scott Moore, CEO of Kidango, the largest provider of subsidized preschools in the Bay Area. 

He said that although his nonprofit has been able to raise teacher salaries from a minimum wage of $11 per hour six years ago to $20 per hour now — and soon, he hopes, a living wage of $26 per hour — it won’t be able to compete with school districts that can provide pensions, retirement and better health care benefits. 

“These are things that teachers deserve and need. So while we know that it means we’ve got to lose some teachers, and that’s hard, we know it’s best for them,” he said. “It makes us work harder to increase our wages and benefits even more.”

He believes more competitive salaries will attract new workers and create a pipeline of teachers starting in early childhood education and advancing to higher grade levels.

In the meantime, child care providers are offering retention bonuses, pay raises, mental health support and other incentives to try to keep the teachers they have. 

At Old Gallinas Children’s Center in San Rafael, providers closed three classrooms to avoid staff burnout. The school strictly requires one teacher for every eight children. When the omicron variant was spreading in the spring and teachers were calling in sick, managers scrambled to meet that ratio. When they couldn’t, they called parents, sometimes at the last minute, to cancel class.

“It was really a huge struggle. (I felt) like sometimes crying because really you didn’t want to do it and there was not any other option,” said the school’s site manager, Iris Marin-Lima. 

Before the pandemic, the nonprofit that operates Old Gallinas and other Head Start sites in Marin County served more than 1,000 kids, a majority of them from immigrant households and beginning to learn English. Today, just under 500 are enrolled, according to Chandra Alexandre, CEO of Community Action Marin. 

Although the county has a reputation of being one of the nation’s wealthiest, census figures show 6% of residents live in poverty.

Many providers blend federal and state funding to better pay teachers and offer year-round, full-day preschool to accommodate working families. Moore, the CEO of Kidango in Fremont, said higher state reimbursement rates for serving 3-year-olds, dual language learners and children with special needs has allowed him to increase wages.

Local governments are also stepping up.

In San Francisco, more than 2,000 teachers and assistant teachers are getting a bump in their paychecks this month as the city institutes a $28-per-hour minimum wage by relying on funds from a commercial real estate tax that was passed by voters. In Alameda County, voters passed a sales tax measure in March 2020 to boost child care workers’ wages, but the money is being held in an account pending a legal challenge by a taxpayers’ association.

Meanwhile, the National Head Start Association is lobbying Congress to increase compensation for teachers by at least $2.5 billion per year. In a survey of 900 Head Start grant recipients nationwide, 90% said they closed classrooms, either temporarily or permanently, due to lack of staff, and 57% said low pay was the top reason for teachers’ departures.

Maricle said Head Start salaries have not kept pace with the program’s increasingly rigorous requirements for teachers.

“What we need is for Congress to continue the conversation it had during COVID, which revealed the importance of early childhood care to the entire economy, and pay the people who get bachelor’s degrees and special training in early brain development … those people should be paid professional wages,” he said.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story omitted the full last name of Old Gallinas Children Center’s site manager, as well as an attribution for data about the number of Head Start children served in Marin County.

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