Commentary Human Rights

Quality Early Education Requires Quality Pay for Teachers

Jean Stevens

Federal early child-care and education policies must require states to raise caretaker and teacher salaries, or else qualified workers will continue to struggle, earn less than they deserve for this vital work, or leave the field, while the children—at their most critical development stage—will receive lower quality care.

At age 25, Rita Carvajal of Brooklyn, New York opened her home day-care business after an injury found her wanting a job that would allow her to work from home and with children. She became licensed with the New York City Health Department, completed the required training, and lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as she recruited enough children to cover her expenses. Today, nearly five years later, she and two employees care for about ten children, teaching them phonics, social skills, recycling, basic astronomy, healthy eating, and much more, Carvajal says. While she considers herself lucky, it’s still a struggle to earn as much as she needs to cover her expenses, including her employees’ $10 hourly wage, about the national average for the job. She cannot charge parents more than the ballpark $350 each week, lest she lose clients.

“Is it worth it all?” Carvajal said in an interview with Rewire. “Can I really live off this?

Thousands of early child-care providers and educators ask themselves the same questions each day as they care for and educate nearly 12.5 million children under age five. They will soon care for millions more under two new federal initiatives set in place within the past month: a $1 billion initiative announced Wednesday to provide public and private grants to states to expand their pre-kindergarten programs, which is part of a $75 billion package called Preschool for All to create universal pre-K education for 4-year-old children, and the reauthorization of the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), a block of funds totaling $5.3 billion for early child-care centers and schools for children ages 1-to-4 nationwide. These federal initiatives will allow states to allocate more funds to further train caretakers and teachers, to improve and enforce safety and health standards, to provide new education materials, and to create more vouchers for low-income families to enroll their children in early childhood programs.

But amid the cheering for these laws and the progress they represent, one critical element of quality childhood education remains noticeably absent from the conversation: funding to pay much more to teacher and caretakers, some of the lowest-paid workers in the country. Federal early child-care and education policies must require states to raise caretaker and teacher salaries, or else qualified workers will continue to struggle, earn less than they deserve for this vital work, or leave the field, while the children—at their most critical development stage—will receive lower-quality care.

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“One major part of having a quality child-care program is the teachers, and if you don’t offer a very lucrative or fair salary for them, then do you not get the best teachers,” said Marivic Q., an administrator of an early learning center of preschool and pre-K in New York City, with a staff of 30 teachers and more than 200 students between the ages of 2 and 5. “They have to include salary for teachers when they’re thinking of how to help communities have a healthy child-care program.

The nation’s early child-care workforce of about 2.3 million, nearly all women, is one of the lowest-paid in the country despite the critical importance of the work. Workers earn only slightly more than fast-food cooks, with average wages of $15.11 and $10.33 an hour, respectively. These wages have remained low over time, even with increasing research on the importance of early childhood education and care in child development. Twenty years ago, a full-time child-care worker earned an average of $19,680 each year, slightly more than the 2011 income of $19,098. Pre-kindergarten teachers—who care for children from age four until they enter kindergarten—have earned a bit more, taking in about 15 percent more in 2013 than in 1997, but still only 60 percent of a kindergarten teacher’s average salary.

These low wages are mostly explained with some history, science, and gender bias. Americans have only recently begun to understand the developmental and neurological effects of trained child-care and education on children ages 1-to-5, thanks to increasing research, explains Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at University of California Berkeley and the author of a recent study about low wages in the early childhood workforce. This early education has been linked to better behavior, academic performance, and higher wages later in life.

Yet the education system remains stuck in the past, structuring itself completely on children in school from kindergarten through high school. No state yet requires preschool and pre-K for all children. “We have a 21st century understanding of the early years and the sensitivity of children to adults in their environment,” Whitebook said, “but a 19th century system. We’re spending the most when kids are older and the least on kids at the period of time when the brain is so exquisitely responsive to its environment. And the opportunity that exists in the first few years, there’s nothing else like it.”

Our education system has also created a false dichotomy between early childhood “caregiving” and education, viewing time spent with children ages 1 through 5 as simple babysitting, but time spent in kindergarten and beyond as education. Thus, federal and state education policies have largely ignored pre-K and early childhood programs. Children, Whitebook said, “are learning at all times; care and education is bound together. In [child-care] centers providing caregiving, you’re facilitating learning, and in educating, you have to provide caregiving.” If our policies viewed early child care as education, those caretakers would be treated as K-12 teachers, including in funding.

Federal policymakers, while they have approved new initiatives, still dismiss early child care as a public necessity worth substantially financing like K-12 education, and still largely consider it a private arrangement that each family—especially mothers—figures out individually. As a result, families spend an increasingly enormous amount on child care: Parents spent about 89 percent more in 2011 than they did in 1997. Poor families spend nearly four times as much of their monthly income than families at or above the poverty line (30 percent compared with 8 percent). Families with a monthly income of $4,500 or more per week spent $163 on child care and education, but families in poverty paid an average of $93 per week. Most of that money goes toward rising child care and pre-K centers’ expenses, including certifications, rent, material costs, and teacher trainings, and it varies depending on location and cost of living.

“Imagine if all parents had to pay for a K-12 education,” Whitebook said. 

Rising early child-care costs have forced an increasing number of parents to stay home with their children, even if they’d rather work, because it is cheaper to stay home. Of the nation’s families that receive public subsidies for child care, nearly all do so because caretakers are in school or working full-time. Universal pre-K programs have been lauded for providing breathing room for parents of 4-year-olds, allowing those parents to work full-time and save on child care.

Americans also tend to view child care as a task anyone, especially women, can take on, one that does not require special education, training, or skill. As such, they believe it does not require higher wages. But early childhood educators with degrees in early childhood development create higher-quality programs and greater “student achievement.” Marivic says her teachers were required to obtain master’s degrees in education, and they are all certified.

“In our program, it’s not babysitting,” Marivic said. “We’re preparing [the kids] for college. What they’re getting in public schools, that’s what we’re doing, too. But while they want the same quality from us, the salaries at public schools have been boosted, but ours only a little bit.”

Policymakers nationwide have also failed to streamline services under CCDBG and other laws, so each state determines its own funding schemes. Much of a child-care worker or educator’s pay depends on where they work. About half of the nation’s early childhood educators and caretakers were paid by a relative or a non-relative to care for the children in private homes, and a quarter work in public or private child-care centers sponsored by schools, religious, or civic organizations. About 28 percent of the early child-care workforce work as independent contractors, licensed and funded by their state to care for children in their home through CCDBG and other public funds. Family child-care workers do not earn overtime or receive benefits, and states only pay a flat rate per child per week in the home—workers lose pay if a child stays home due to weather, sickness, or other conditions.

Meanwhile, more than 1.3 million children attended state-funded pre-K in 2011, but far more children were eligible—the disparity is most likely due to past cuts of more than $548 million across the 40 states that offer pre-K.

Advocates and policymakers have recognized the importance of quality in early childhood education and care by prioritizing funding for training, licensing, safety requirements, and classroom resources in the CCDBG and other policies.

Therein lies the rub: Higher worker and educator wages would drastically improve the quality of early child care and education. Low wages reduce quality by creating insecurity, stress, and employee turnover.

“Some teachers say, why am I required to do so much work, but I only make so much?” Marivic said. “It’s stressful, the children can feel it. This is a second home, imagine a home with a dysfunctional family. Imagine it in a classroom. And we say, we can’t do anything about it. We say, if you stay [in the job] it’s because you love the kids. Just be ready for an emotional salary, not an monetary salary.”

Of the nation’s childhood caretakers and educators, 97 percent are women, and about two-thirds are mothers themselves. Many struggle to cover rent, food, and other expenses. About 46 percent of child-care workers rely on public assistance through food stamps, Medicaid, and other subsidies. In one comprehensive study of early child-care educators in one state, about 73 percent stated they worried about paying their monthly bills and about half worried about their families’ having enough food to eat. An increasing number have college degrees specializing in education and early childhood, and must repay student loans. Many workers and educators ultimately leave the industry, and turnover is high—between 25 to 40 percent. One-third of all workers that leave the industry do so because of the low wages.

Stress for caretakers creates stress for children, which results in lower-quality programs. Extensive psychological and clinical research has shown that young children are completely affected by their caretakers’ mental health and high turnover. Young children require attachment, routine, and continuity to developmentally thrive, and stress-fueled interactions and revolving caretakers results in impaired memory, immune system, and behavioral development. “When you’re stressed, you show it,” Carvajal said. “It’s in your voice and in your body language, and children pick up on everything.” In programs where caretakers and teachers earned more and feel more secure in their job, children actually perform better on exams and retain more information.

“When you’re sitting with a group of children and you’re thinking, how am I going to pay my rent?” Whitebook said. “That distracts you a little. Children essentially end up having a mediocre experience when they could having a fabulous experience.”

Marivic and other administrators struggle to attract and retain candidates with early childhood education training and experience when those candidates might also teach in other pre-K programs or in public schools where they can earn a greater income. “A lot of teachers apply, but when they see the salary … whoosh. We’re trying to get the best, but if we cannot offer the same salary [as kindergarten jobs], we cannot get the best people.”

Higher wages would attract a more educated and well-trained workforce to the work and, more importantly, would keep them there. Highly paid teachers are also more likely to have professional working conditions with improved training, better equipment, on-the-job support, and most importantly, they have greater economic security in their own life.

“If we valued these jobs, workers would be paid like they would in other jobs,” Whitebook said. “It’s a matter of economic justice.”

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