Thinking Outside the Box on the Crisis of Early Educator Wages (Institute for Child Success)

By Megan Carolan, Associate Director for Policy Research

Early childhood educators and child care providers face low wages that hurt the future of the early childhood field, according to a new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at Berkeley. This report is the latest to paint a stark portrait of the everyday lives of early educators and the difficulties which will prevent early childhood from reaching its full potential. According to the new report,

“Early educators are among the lowest-paid workers in the country. The median hourly wages for child care workers range from $8.72 in Mississippi to $12.24 in New York. Nationwide, the median wage is $9.77. Preschool teachers fare somewhat better: wages range from $10.54 in Idaho to $19.21 in Louisiana. In contrast, the median national wage for kindergarten teachers is $24.83.

Nearly one-half of child care workers (46 percent), compared to 26 percent of the U.S. workforce, are part of families that participate in at least one public assistance program, such as Medicaid or food stamps.”

Consider that again: nearly half of child care workers participate in a public assistance program to make ends meet within their own families. We know that living below, or close to, the poverty level is stressful for families and can contribute to conditions that can make childrearing difficult, from working long hours to food insecurity to frequently moving. Yet, the workforce to which millions of American trust their children is expected to push these stressors to the back burner. This is particularly jarring in an early childhood system that prioritizes public investment for low-income families – children’s caregivers both at home and in their child care settings may be facing the same stressors.

We don’t have to guess about the impact these conditions have on early childhood professionals – research tells us. Stress and adversity can impact teachers’ physical and mental health, which can negatively impact their interactions with the children in their care, according to a 2014 report from CSCCE. Children who are not provided with appropriate support and sensitivity in the classroom have been observed to have higher stress hormones as well as anxiety. Low wages and job stability are clear sources of stress for child care providers – a study in California found that 57 percent of teaching staff were “somewhat or strongly worried” about economic insecurity, based on a 13 item index. Teachers who earned less than $12.50 per hour had significantly higher scores on this index. One study has noted that higher Environment Rating Scale scores – one of the most commonly used measures of classroom quality nationwide — in the classroom were correlated with lower aggregate worry scores. Or, as one early educator interviewed for The New York Times,eloquently remembered “meeting with a senator who told her, ‘You don’t get into this for the money; you’re paid in love.’ ‘Really?’ she replied. ‘When my landlord comes, can I just give him a hug?’”

Fixing this egregious wage disparity is complex and expensive, but the time is now. As wereported last year, a recent survey by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAYEYC) found that voters rank the importance of the work done by early educators alongside that of firefighters and nurses. When voters were asked essentially whether educator requirements should be increased before pay improves, or if salaries should be improved to attract teachers with higher credentials, voters were nearly equally split. According to CSCCE,

“Only 17 states have policies or programs in place to address the problem of low wages for early educators, and they still fall severely short:

  • Twelve states offer a stipend program to supplement wages, and two states (Louisiana and Nebraska) offer early educators refundable tax credits that augment earnings, but these do not fundamentally raise ongoing salaries of early educators. Furthermore, eligibility requirements and funding levels limit participation and constrain supplement amounts.

  • While 23 states require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for public pre-K and elementary school teachers, only four states (Hawaii, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee) require the same starting salary and salary schedule for all public pre-K teachers as for K-3 teachers.”

The importance of pay equity is very clear in our technical assistance work with jurisdictions exploring Pay for Success. In both our first and second cohorts, ICS staff have met with child care and pre-K providers in jurisdictions that are looking to expand early childhood programs to understand not only local conditions but also the barriers to expanding. Often, providers are excited about the opportunity to provide more high-quality slots for children, but dubious that they can meet the staffing needs given difficulty they have in offering competitive salaries and benefits. We often hear this concern from community-based providers, who feel that qualified teachers are likely to take pre-K classrooms in public schools instead, where they are paid on public school salaries and access the same time off as K-12 teachers.

We know that fidelity of implementation is essential to a Pay for Success project demonstrating its anticipated outcomes, and this includes ensuring that providers are well-support. To that end, ICS explores possible strategies to address wage disparities in the jurisdictions we work with. Often, it’s feasible only to start with the type of small step policies the CSCCE acknowledges are beneficial, but not sufficient. In Spartanburg, South Carolina, for example, where we have helped develop a continuum of support for children from birth to age 5, we included pricing to implement the WAGE$ model – this model provides small wage stipends, twice per year, to early childhood teachers based on experience and continuing education.Evidence suggests the program has achieved its goal of reducing turnover, with a rate of 12% to 18% turnover statewide (compared to the 25% goal set by SmartStart for the program, and a national rate of 30%-40%). WAGE$ recipients also demonstrate progress on their education, and reported a 99% satisfaction rate with the program. Such efforts, of course, are not enough to secure economic stability for this wage force, but mark an important step forward in making sure teachers’ needs are at the table. Early childhood teachers provide tremendous value to our students and their values, as well as to our economies – we cannot afford to ignore their compensation.