I helped open Magnolia Blossom Montessori School in the Fall of 2017. I was excited to build the first Wildflower School in the South. Magnolia Blossom is a private non-profit organization, founded on personal savings and perseverance. Like many early childhood educators, my partners and I were highly educated with the student loan debt to prove it, and felt stuck in low paying daycare positions where we couldn’t impact the change we dreamed of. I was drawn to the teacher led model of education after experiencing the downside of working in schools where administrators made decisions that were far removed from the needs of teachers and children in their classrooms.
As a Teacher-Leader at Magnolia Blossom, I work directly with children and families while working as an administrator after school hours. Starting this business has been one of the most empowering things I have ever accomplished. My Co-Teacher Leaders and I wear many hats: we write grants, run a small business, do marketing, budgeting, human resources, training, parent education, community development, caregiving, mentor emerging teacher leaders, and create policy, all on top of our key daily roles as early childhood educators.
Magnolia Blossom has strived to be an equitable school from our first day. The Equitable Tuition Model provides families with an opportunity to contribute to socio-economic diversity and practice in mutual aid. As an early childhood educator of 11 years, I know that all children benefit from early education, especially Montessori education, regardless of their families’ means. Like all early education programs, since there is no public option, Magnolia Blossom relies on tuition income as its primary source of funding. Therefore, an equitable tuition model is critical to socio-economic diversity because it affords a discount to families who would otherwise be unable to pay the required tuition. One-third of our enrolled families received Child Care Assistance Program (CCAP) funding, which only covers about half of our daily operating cost per student. One-third of our families make too much to qualify for CCAP assistance, and pay a lower tuition than market rate, while one-third of our families are high income, and pay a higher- yet competitive rate in the private Montessori market.
In addition to this tuition model, I teach parents every year about what equity is, and create employment policies that promote equity in our school. Even with these efforts, a single-parent home with very low income who enrolls a toddler will pay 28% of their overall income to attend. In comparison, the lowest-earning high-income parent pays 19% of their annual income. And still, both of these families pay as much for early education as they could pay for a mortgage or local college tuition.
See, unlike public schools across the country that are funded by every tax paying adult, early childhood programs, or “day cares”, are not subsidized by governments, local or federal. Somewhere along the way, we decided that every child should have access to k-12 education, but not early childhood education (ECE), which ironically has been proven to be more valuable to brain development, social development, and community success than any stage of learning. Instead of investing in ECE as a whole, the US puts this burden on individual families, and most of all on the educators that work in daycare centers across the country. In my stent of teaching at Early Head Starts, fancy private schools, and modest ECE centers, or even applying for Public district preschools, I constantly found myself being required to obtain more education while accepting lower pay and fewer benefits than my colleagues teaching higher grades. Accepting hours that ranged from 6 am to 6 pm, working through summers and holidays. It’s no wonder that ambitious educators like myself eventually seek positions that pay what we are worth.
So, why am I ranting about the worth of early childhood educators? Because at this moment, we are in danger. Do you remember when discussing the impact of charter schools was a hot (niche) topic? Communities across the country watched as the new “white flight” shut down public schools as families with resources flocked to charter schools and magnet programs. I know we are always discussing how to create “diversity” and “inclusion” in our school districts, and we are still talking about it here in Louisville. Despite generations of efforts to cross-bus for integration. I was a parent at Coleridge Taylor Montessori Public School, and I watched as Montessori parents who could afford private options, or had the privilege of experiencing Montessori preschool programs, pulled their children out of the Title One program to leave for other schools. Leaving the “resides” neighborhood students whose families’ lives were too wracked with poverty to be as present at the school. These well meaning Montessori parents were advocating for their children, using their privilege to provide something “better,” and in the process, took their voice and their resources away from the community.
This is happening now with day cares in the time of Covid-19.
When I opened Magnolia Blossom Montessori, I had trouble finding applicants who weren’t white and wealthy. I intentionally left spots open (read uncollected tuition) until low income families applied. We struggled to find parents who qualified for state subsidies like CCAP, or families who identified as Black or Latinx. My belief was that these families saw our school and assumed they couldn’t afford it, or they wouldn’t be welcome. The majority of Montessori schools are occupied by wealthy white families, and I hear this confirmed over and over again when applicants finally find our school, after touring other Montessori schools. You can imagine my excitement this year when we were awarded a large expansion grant that required us to serve low income families. This growth opportunity allows us to serve more low income families- AND more tuition paying families, and our success hinges on the balance of the two.
**enter the corona-virus epidemic**
Magnolia Blossom Montessori had achieved modest savings over the first three years, largely due to constant enrollment and meager pay for Teacher Leaders. Heads of School were paid about $21k a year, and assisting staff only $10.50 an hour, with no benefits. These wages are not sustainable- or frankly ethical, especially for well educated professionals with student loans to pay back. We were already carrying the financial weight of providing access to others on our backs. When Magnolia Blossom was mandated to close in March, 2020:
A July survey from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) revealed that 86% of childcare providers are serving less children amidst the pandemic. Almost as many faced new operating costs, such as additional staff, legal fees, and cleaning supplies. Enrollment had plummeted by two-thirds and 40% of programs surveyed, including half of all minority-owned programs, said they would permanently close without substantial government aid.
At first, I was not worried about a drop in enrollment. At the beginning of the school year, we had 30+ applicants in the queue, and our 36 spots were full. But then the turnover began. Even before we opened our doors for fall 2020, 10 families decided to leave because of a change in life circumstances. Parents lost jobs, needed to move closer to family, or just decided to keep their child home because Covid-related risk factors. On top of that, those families who qualified for CCAP were having trouble (and still are) getting approved, as offices are closed to in person visits, and system errors are plentiful even when staff isn’t working from home. Most of the time, we hear that parents are waiting on the phone all day and not getting through. Even when they do get through, CCAP only pays us for days children are present, so every day spent in a required quarantine will be a day we go unpaid.
Experts say that this childcare crisis will have a domino effect on the economy. Women and people of color are disproportionately employed in low-wage care work, including ECE. Magnolia Blossom struggles to find qualified teachers who are in a position to work for so little. We fear that ECE educators will find better opportunities that pay what they are worth and leave the industry entirely.
As I try to fill the last open spots, we hear, “I think we are going to sit this year out,” or “we decided to get a nanny until the pandemic is over,” because it’s “just too risky.” And you know what, I agree with those families 100%. Every family should be afforded the choice of their family’s safety over sending their child to school. But it’s not a choice every family has. Because right now, our application queue is finally filling up with CCAP eligible and low-income families looking for a safe place for their children. The problem is, we can’t afford to operate on a full docket of low-income families. An equity based model requires participation and inclusion from families of all incomes. Something has got to give. Or Somebody. And if higher-income families aren’t willing to stick out this pandemic with those families who can’t afford to stay home from work or pay a nanny, they might not have a school to return to when this is all over. Then we are really going to have to rethink our economy from the ground up.
STATE CHARTER SCHOOL LAWS ENABLE “WHITE-FLIGHT CHARTER SCHOOLS”
School Choice, Charter Schools, and White Flight
The New White Flight
How COVID-19 is Impacting Child Care Providers
COVID-19 Has Nearly Destroyed the Childcare Industry—and It Might Be Too Late to Save It
Most learning happens in the first 3 years