LOWELL — For $14.25 an hour, Kristin Hovey is entrusted with the budding young minds of 18 disadvantaged children whose government-sponsored preschool education aims to lift them out of poverty.
At that wage, she is nearly consigned to poverty herself. The single mother has to work extra jobs on nights and weekends to make ends meet.
"I do it because I love them and it's important," Hovey said. "It's their foundation for all of school."
While policy makers and educators promote the transformative power of early education, preschool teachers are still paid baby sitters' wages — even though many of them have, at the state's urging, continued their education and come to the job bearing bachelor's degrees.
More than a decade after Massachusetts created a department to ensure that preschools would be viewed as potential laboratories of learning, not just playgrounds, the Department of Early Education and Care has succeeded in raising standards to professionalize the field but has not rewarded those expectations.
"We did all the things we were asked to do," said Karen N. Frederick, executive director of Community Teamwork Inc., a Lowell antipoverty agency that runs the child care center where Hovey works. "Our teachers continued their education. They're getting their bachelor's. We were convinced that the money would follow because we felt like the commitment was there. But it hasn't."
Child care advocates say the often-underpaid workforce faces a crisis, and they point out that government is no mere bystander. The state imposed new regulations on providers and it is also the largest, and lowest-paying, source of early education.
The state, using federal block grant money, pays for most or all of the cost of child care for about 18,000 preschool-age children from low-income or troubled homes, but its rates don't come close to actual costs.
In Lowell, for instance, a family pays about $47 a day to send a child to preschool. When the state pays the bill, the preschool gets only $37.13. Since most of the centers' costs are salaries, they have less money to pay teachers.
"When they pay deflated rates, it basically forces programs to balance the books on the backs of their employees," said William J. Eddy, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Early Education and Care, which represents child care centers.
As a result, the centers that care for the neediest children in the state — the ones who, research shows, most benefit from early education — are being starved of resources.
"The state is just not investing in the kids it's agreed to serve," said Wayne Ysaguirre, president of Boston Nurtury.
The Nurtury, which runs child care programs in Boston and Cambridge, charges families $55 a day for preschool but accepts low-income children at the state's rate of $38.22. Much higher rates — around $72 — are charged by the city's for-profit preschools that don't accept subsidies.
The number of child care centers has also been dropping. Annual reports by Child Care Aware, a national information resource that surveys child care referral agencies in each state, found the overall number of day care centers in Massachusetts dropped about 18 percent over the past five years, from 3,195 to 2,617.
A state spokeswoman would not comment on that data or make Early Education Commissioner Thomas L. Weber available for an interview. Advocates say the data seem consistent with their observations that smaller day care providers are buckling under the economic pressure.
After years of drilling into parents' minds that early education is crucial for brain development, providers are now having trouble finding — and keeping — teachers with solid academic credentials.
Without a full staff, providers can't serve all the children they're licensed to accommodate, they say. Classrooms can sit empty for portions of the year as some teachers leave in search of more lucrative opportunities.
A teacher making $32,000 annually at a Boston nonprofit preschool, for instance, would make a starting salary of $52,000 teaching preschool in the unionized Boston public schools. Or, in some cases, administrators say teachers are leaving the profession to work in retail or fast food.
In December, early childhood educators flooded a meeting of the state Board of Early Education and Care to explain their economic predicament. One former teacher said she quit her job last year because it paid so little she feared she and her two children would end up homeless.
"I know that we don't enter this field for pay," said the teacher, Kariuska Sanchez, according to her prepared testimony. "But we need to make enough to put food on the table and pay the rent. It is a little disappointing that I currently flip burgers part time and make more than I did working full time educating children."
That was not news to the state commissioner of early education. Three years ago, a panel he led concluded that the state's rates "strain early education and care programs and directly impact the Commonwealth's ability to provide high-quality care to young children."
"We understand that one of the biggest drivers of program quality is workforce," said the report Weber submitted. "Unfortunately, compensation for early educators in the Commonwealth is insufficient and does not reflect qualifications or competency, causing the current 29 percent turnover rate in the early education field."
Much of the discussion has centered on the rates the state pays to schools that admit children from lower-income families — rates so low that they limit the wages that can be paid to teachers. And that means teachers like Hovey make as little as $14.25 an hour.
Weber recently requested an extra $31 million in the budget to bring rates paid to the schools closer to market value. But the budget that Governor Charlie Baker introduced last month would increase early education funding by only about $1 million. And unlike last year, when he committed $5 million to boost rates, Baker's new budget does not offer child care providers any raises.
But it would cost an exorbitant amount — an extra $134 million, by providers' estimates — to bring child care providers' rates up to market level.
Despite parents' staggering investments in child care — particularly in Massachusetts, where the costs for full-time care for a 4-year-old are the highest in the nation, averaging $12,781 — teachers working in the field have never made much.
Those who take care of children earn less than those who take care of pets and barely more than fast-food cooks, a 2014 report by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley found. Earnings barely increased over two decades, leaving nearly half of child care workers dependent on public assistance.
Preschool teachers do generally earn more than those who care for infants and toddlers.
Across age groups, child care teachers' wages are so low — less than $26,000 on average — that workers in high-cost Massachusetts often qualify for subsidized care for their own children. (A single mother with one child can earn up to $35,099 and qualify for aid.)
Over the past 20 years, policy makers have come to appreciate the benefits of early learning and its impact on children's lives.
Research shows that high-quality preschool can substantially improve children's early language, literacy, and math skills — even more so for children from low-income families.
Though some of those gains may even out over time, studies also show improved societal outcomes associated with preschool — better high school graduation rates, higher earnings, and reduced teen pregnancy and crime.
In 2005, the state formed the Department of Early Education and Care so that child care would be overseen — and funded — as an aspect of education.
The department launched a quality rating system that ranks providers based on criteria like the number of teachers with college degrees. But good rankings don't bring higher state reimbursements, at least for preschool age children. And teachers with higher educational levels don't necessarily make more money — unlike in the public schools, where union contracts deliver higher wages for advanced degrees.
"There's a perverse way these expectations have grown while Massachusetts has disinvested," said Ysaguirre.
At these rates, some child care centers say are struggling to attract qualified teachers. Until this year, Community Teamwork had at least one teacher with a bachelor's degree in every classroom. Now, Frederick has seven preschool classroom vacancies, even after lowering her requirements.
"We have never, ever, ever had this many openings," said Frederick, who has worked with families since 1978.
This year, though, she had the opportunity to hire additional teachers — and in an odd twist, she was required by the federal government to pay those new teachers a premium rate.
Lowell is one of five Massachusetts cities that opened free, intensive preschool classrooms through a $15 million federal grant awarded to the state. The Lowell public schools partnered with Community Teamwork and a for-profit child care chain to provide free preschool to 4-year-olds who otherwise wouldn't attend a program before kindergarten.
To try to ensure quality, the grant required that the teachers be paid what their peers in the public schools would make: $43,680 as a starting salary.
That's at least $10,000 more than their fellow teachers at Community Teamwork are making. And it was enough to attract one passionate educator back into the field.
Melissa Alfonso, a University of Massachusetts Lowell graduate who lives in Methuen, had given up on teaching because she had to supplement her salary with nightly baby-sitting gigs to make ends meet.
She was making $43,000 as assistant director of a child care center, but the grant made it possible for her to return to teaching at the same salary. The catch: The grant runs only through next year; two additional years will require congressional reauthorization.
"Just the fact that I am getting paid on par with the rest of the educators in the public schools is amazing to me," Alfonso said. "It validates what we do."
There is no such validation, though, for Hovey. As an assistant teacher in a classroom that didn't get the federal grant, she makes $29,640, even with a bachelor's degree and experience that spans two decades.
"I'm also equally qualified, if not more qualified," Hovey said, of her better-paid colleagues in the grant-funded classrooms. "So it is frustrating."