As most every parent or grandparent in our community knows, preschools are the single most important innovation in Jewish family life in the last 20 years. While the rest of America was holding back, spreading the canard that preschools breed alienation between mothers and children, not to mention disease, the Jewish community built playgrounds and began teaching the aleph-bet.
But if early childhood education has gone from being a luxury to a necessity, the reciprocal respect due preschool teachers and administrators has been slow in coming. Our communities too often regard early childhood educators like untrained help, with lower pay and fewer rights than offered gardeners or nannies. And that's why the proposed early childhood code now under consideration in Los Angeles is so important, for it would establish the nation's first standards and practices in this crucial field.
Four years in the making and already approved by the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education, adoption of the code by one third of L.A.'s synagogues should be a no-brainer. It guarantees sick leave and time off for maternity and shiva, plus a grievance procedure and a minimum salary scale to L.A.'s 1,500 early childhood teachers. Yet with only three weeks to go before the June deadline, only 10 synagogues have given the OK, with another four said to be sending in the paper work. The code is in trouble.
The code grants these educators the same rights as teachers in Jewish day schools and afternoon Hebrew schools, rights that were negotiated in 1945, when most Hebrew school teachers were men. As an interesting footnote, that policy was negotiated by David Yaroslavsky, father of today's L.A. County Supervisor, Zev Yaroslavsky. But there's no David Yaroslavsky for today's preschool teachers. The proposed code does not even mention such divisive demands as insurance and pension.
What's the problem here? I spoke with early childhood educators and BJE authorities this week who were, as might be expected, devastated by the shortfall in obtaining minimal rights. Over the past decade, L.A. has become the nation's think tank for Jewish early childhood education, including upgrading standards for classroom curriculum, and pioneering an accreditation process soon to be duplicated across the nation. It burns them that the hard-fought-for code may go down to defeat because of Jewish infighting: preschool staffs at larger, wealthier synagogues won't rock their own boats for their sisters at smaller schools; middle-range synagogues fear guaranteed sick days will hurt their budgets.
But what really galls is that so-called liberal rabbis have left the preschool teachers to fight for the code one synagogue at a time. The rabbis can plead ignorance, or can insist that their own synagogues treat preschool teachers well. But the lack of concerted effort to protect the entire preschool educator community is troubling, especially among rabbis who sermonize about the rights of the homeless and the needs of undocumented workers in the secular world. (Two of L.A.'s largest Orthodox preschools signed onto the policy early.) What would Samuel Gompers say? The whispered one-day work stoppage is unlikely, but it would at least be a show of unity.
I've been saddened this week to hear the cynicism and misery of preschool educators as they register the lack of respect with which their field is held. They sense that they've missed the boat, and are concluding that our synagogue boards are now comprised of the nouveau riche who think of preschool teachers as service providers, and that quality education at low cost is something board members think they have coming to them.
"I can't in good conscience encourage bright young teachers to make preschool a professional choice," says Dede Solis, head of the Association for Early Jewish Education in L.A.
California public schools are facing a 30,000-plus teacher shortage and will have no trouble raiding our preschools for promising teacher material. Yonaton Schultz, head of the BJE director of school personnel told me that preschools is already more than 30 percent. This week, three preschools were advertising for administrators.
Preschool teachers, meanwhile, are acting on their rights. At least one L.A. preschool teacher has already won a lawsuit for wrongful termination against an L.A. synagogue, costing some $80,000 in legal fees alone.
The influence of preschools cannot be exaggerated: they permitted Jewish women to reap the rewards of the secular women's movement, providing our children with a safe, nurturing place to be and learn while giving mom peace of mind at work. They create surrogate extended families at a time when Jewish grandparents are living half way across the country. They teach a religion and values-based core curriculum that entices otherwise assimilated families back into the spiritual fold. They love our children well.
What a shame that the Jewish community, so long associated with sensitivity to worker rights, is now so clueless when it comes to its own. The preschool teachers in L.A. are drawing attention to a problem that impacts Jewish (and non-Jewish) families everywhere. Uniform standards are needed for those who teach values to our young. It's payback time.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, is author of "A Woman's Voice: Reflections on Love, Death, Faith, Food & Family Life" (On The Way Press). She will speak at Hadassah Education Day on May 23 at Stephen S. Wise Temple.
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.