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Jewish Journal

Baby Sitters No More

January 22, 1998 | 7:00 pm

The first thing that struck me as PresidentClinton unveiled his $21.7 billion child-care proposal last week wasthat it was hardly noticed in our community at all. With the possibleexception of increased child-care tax exemptions, the nation's firstpreschool package won't touch the Jewish community to anyextent.

Let the Christian Coalition insist that womenstill belong solely at home. Our own community resolved the problemearly, and did it well.

For today's young Jewish parents, synagoguepreschools are taken for granted. There are 65 preschools in LosAngeles, serving 8,000 children. Day care isn't just for Mom'sbenefit anymore. We send our children to school even if two parentsare working in the home office. Why? Because our preschools aregreat. Our children take art, computers, science as soon as they'reout of diapers. They celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays, learnHebrew blessings, and identify the map of Israel as the heart of theworld.

No one calls it baby-sitting. We know it for whatit is: a godsend.

If you sense a "yes, but" in all this, here itcomes. Sure, we can take pride in schools that raise up happy,competent Jewish children. But we also have cause for shame --in thetreatment of our preschool teachers. Across the nation, Jewishchildren are being educated by teachers who get less respect than thesynagogue janitor.

Of course, money is an issue. Less than a decadeago, beginning early childhood educators in Los Angeles, with 12units of college, made minimum wage. The Jewish community does betternow ($9/hour), but every step up is a fight.

But wages are not the only issue. Our earlychildhood educators work under labor arrangements deemed punitive 50years ago.

They have no job security. They can be firedwithout cause, and there is no grievance procedure. They work withchildren, who are notoriously susceptible to every cold or flu bugflying around, but commonly have no paid sick days. They can bedocked for taking off the second day of the Jewish holidays.

These are the people who teach our children Jewishvalues.

Naturally, there are two sides to the story.Employment rights for teachers threatens synagogue budgets,especially if schools hire substitutes when teachers are absent.Moreover, preschool directors are still fighting for their ownprofessional dignity in a field commonly scorned as merely a "secondincome." They correctly fear confrontation with synagogue leaders asinviting board oversight of their independent realm.

Our teachers are caught between competing forcesand have few advocates for their cause. Turnover among preschoolstaff is about 40 percent; our children's teachers are voting withtheir feet against treatment that is just not Jewish. They will getjobs in corporate day care or public schools (if either the Clintonproposal or one by Gov. Pete Wilson passes), or will leave thepreschool world. All of us -- especially the children --suffer.

"How can a Jewish institution in touch withethical values justify not treating its teachers decently?" Phelan C.Hurewitz told me. Hurewitz, while chair of the Bureau of JewishEducation, helped form the professional practices committee that hasjust developed a new code for preschool teachers. "These are basicrights."

Here's the rub: Teachers in day schools andafternoon religious schools are already protected under a similarprofessional code that has been in place for decades. These teachershave grievance procedures, sick days and even pension options;preschool teachers do not. Is it a coincidence that day- andreligious-school educators were mostly men at the time these rightswere granted, while preschool teachers are universally women?

"They change diapers, and they get treatedaccordingly," one preschool advocate told me.

In February, the BJE will consider, and no doubtpass, the new early childhood code. It has already been subject topublic hearings and negotiation, under a committee headed by attorneyand former BJE chair Linda Goldenberg Mayman. The BJE has been anational leader in early childhood standards, practices andcurriculum; its school accreditation program is now being duplicatedin Miami, Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. Now Los Angeles isready to lead again.

But once the BJE accepts the code, the real battlewill begin, as 65 synagogues decide independently, yeah or nay. Iftoo few schools are covered (the number not yet confirmed), the codewill fail.

If you belong to a synagogue, make sure your boarddoes what is right. Our educators do us proud. Now we must return thecompliment and give Los Angeles' 1,500 preschool teachers the dignityand rights they deserve.

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. Join her Thursday evenings at 8 p.m. in AmericaOnline's Jewish community chat room. Her e-mail address iswmnsvoice@aol.com.

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