The Kids Aren't Alright
The eight babies in cribs at the Discovery Me Pre-School in the Kendall section of Miami are too young to complain, though they make it clear with their tears and outstretched arms that they'd much rather be held or played with than confined to their tiny beds. Discovery Me, located in a large, windowless space behind a mall in Kendall, a suburban community in the southwest part of the city, provides care to fifty-two children. Officially, there should be no more than four infants for every adult. But here there were eight alone with a single caretaker, each whiling away the hours in only a diaper.
Indeed, a few unannounced visits to some of the centers that accept subsidized children in southern Florida revealed that it's not unusual for such absurd numbers of children to be in the care of a lone adult. In the Sunshine State, one childcare provider can legally look after as many as eleven 2-year-olds, fifteen 3-year-olds or twenty 4-year-olds. You might think it'd be impossible to surpass these state-set limits, which are the laxest in the nation. Yet even these ratios are routinely violated.
At the Peter Pan Child Development Center in Pompano Beach, for example, nineteen 3- and 4-year-olds and a school-aged girl were in a small room with an elderly woman in a wheelchair on the afternoon of my visit. Though it's supposed to be nap time, several children have strayed from their sleeping mats. Across a small walkway, another classroom full of children at the center was also understaffed, with two adults overseeing four infants and thirteen 1- and 2-year-olds.
Meanwhile, at Discovery Me, it wasn't just the babies who were having a difficult day. According to Olga Ceballos, the center's director, thirty-eight 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds were in the care of just two adults. Ceballos says one of her teachers had a doctor's appointment on this particular day, leaving the preschool more understaffed than usual.
There is no pool of substitute teachers for Ceballos to draw on--with the piddling pay, it's hard enough to find regular staff. So the director stepped in to look after the children. "There were just so many kids, I had to put the TV on," she says. Afterward the children went into the playground adjoining the parking lot. Being responsible for more than two dozen playing toddlers was so stressful that Ceballos talks about the stint as a physical trauma. "By the time I had to leave for my meeting, I was shaking all over," she says.
Even the best-run centers struggle to find qualified adults to hire. At the A-Plus Early Learning Center, in a small Tudor-style building in the middle of a housing complex in Miami, director Linda Carmona Sánchez struggles to make the work enticing to potential staff. Teachers there and most everywhere in the state receive no health benefits, paid vacation or sick leave. And even though they are subject to fingerprinting and background checks and required to take a forty-five-hour training course and ongoing education, most Florida childcare workers make only the state's minimum wage, $6.67 an hour, which adds up to about $14,000 a year for full-time work. Just across the street from A-Plus, they could easily make more serving up fries at Burger King or McDonald's. Stocking the shelves at the local Wal-Mart pays more, too. Even Sánchez, who has run the center for ten years and works a minimum of sixty hours a week, earns just $17,680 a year.
Some of Florida's childcare woes are its own. The state has relatively high poverty levels. And thirty-two regional networks dole out the federal dollars--as opposed to one state agency--which creates unnecessary administrative costs. But the crisis is also clearly a national one. More than twenty-five states have lowered their eligibility caps. In several, a family of three with an income of $20,000 now earns too much to qualify for subsidies. Others leave their income thresholds higher and simply cap the numbers on waiting lists. Or they put parents on lists but give them a number in the high tens of thousands that would mean their children might finally get subsidized care sometime in their teenage years. And because of the lack of federal funds, childcare providers cut workers' pay; scrimp on books, toys and crayons; and struggle to pay their rent.