This post originally appeared at Medium for AFT Schoolhouse Voices.
Although we entered the early childhood field a generation apart, following different pathways to our current jobs at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE), the conditions facing early educators motivated both our journeys. Marcy entered the field in the 1970s as an infant toddler teacher, joining with other teachers to secure “rights, raises and respect,” in recognition that the quality of care children received was directly linked to the pay and working conditions of their teachers. Lea’s early childhood work began in the early 2000’s with mothers’ struggling to find and afford good care, and then with teachers and providers struggling to juggle full-time employment while pursuing college education. Through these experiences, we both came to realize that early care and education (ECE) services, designed in large measure to alleviate poverty and support the well-being of children and families, too often generate poverty among early educators and their own families.
At CSCCE, we conduct cutting-edge research and propose policy solutions aimed at improving how our nation prepares, supports and rewards the early care and education workforce to ensure young children’s optimal development. Our report, Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages, highlighted the lack of progress since the early days of the Worthy Wage Campaign in improving early childhood jobs. Despite growing public understanding of the importance of ECE services, and rising expectations for what early educators need to know and be able to do, early childhood jobs overall fail to provide a living wage. Nearly one-half of those employed in child care centers live in families relying on at least one federal income support, such as food stamps. And, in no state last year, did the median wage for child care workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reach $15.00 per hour. Nobody working full-time — including early educators — should be worrying about feeding their families.
Yet, we are cautiously optimistic. Over the last 25 years, wages have risen between 15–19% for lead pre-k teachers. We also see positive signs in states like New Jersey and cities like Boston where they require salary parity for pre-k teachers with K-12 teachers. And the first round of Preschool Development and Expansion Grants required participating states to include strategies to achieve salary parity in participating programs. However, piecemeal progress towards worthy wages for a small segment of the workforce is not enough.
Transforming early childhood jobs is long overdue. Our ability as a nation to provide high quality early learning experiences to all children depends upon our ability to establish policies and funding mechanisms that provide for a stable, economically healthy workforce, without overburdening families with the cost of early education. To this end, CSCCE will be releasing the first State of the Early Childhood Workforce Index in June, which appraises policies and initiatives aimed at improving the conditions of early childhood employment. The Index will shine a spotlight on states’ investments in the ECE workforce as well as other policies, like paid sick leave, that contribute to the well-being of workers across occupations, particularly those that are low income.
More importantly than what the statistics tell us, it is the lived experiences of early educators and the families they serve, that underscore the case for fundamentally restructuring how we finance ECE services. As the Worthy Wage jingle goes, “Parents cannot afford to pay, teachers and providers can’t afford to stay, help us find a better way.” Pass it along — especially this Worthy Wage Day and during this election season that is upon us!
Marcy Whitebook, Ph.D., Director, and Lea J.E. Austin, Ed.D., Specialist, Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, a program of the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California at Berkeley.