Calling for Worthy Wages for Early Educators

May 1, 1992, marked the first Worthy Wage Day, kicking off a movement that had been decades in the making. On that May Day, thousands of early educators (including CSCCE Founding Director Marcy Whitebook) joined together in marches and rallies held across the country to call for greater public investment to improve pay and working conditions for the early care and education workforce. As we mark what is now Worthy Wage Week, CSCCE is highlighting the voices of early educators and joining educators across the country to issue a clarion call for just compensation for those who care for and educate our nation’s young children.

At the very beginning of the pandemic last year, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers closed schools in order to, as he put it, “protect children and educators.” Early childhood centers, however, were implored to remain open. We were labeled “essential” but given no immediate support or guidance, not even personal protective equipment to protect our own workforce.

As a field, we were outraged to find that our children and our educators were somehow not worthy of the same protections as our K-12 counterparts.

Even worse, this message came from a governor who had been our former State Superintendent of schools. The early childhood industry had been so excited when he was elected in 2018 because we had felt that surely a fellow educator would understand the crucial nature of our field.

Out of this outrage, the advocacy group Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed (WECAN) was born. The three founding members (a center director, a family child care provider, and I, an infant/toddler teacher) began building a training and advocacy network that would inspire educators to use their voices to bring our struggles forward. I am proud to say that since we began in the summer of 2020, we have grown to an organization of more than 200 statewide members. By providing monthly advocacy training, educators have successfully brought their personal stories to lawmakers, community members, and the media in order to advocate for greater public investment. This outreach has helped to ensure that workforce issues, especially wages and benefits, remain central to the debate. We are thrilled to have successfully advocated for wage-specific language in the Wisconsin “Child Care Counts” budget measure, which, if passed, will mandate that fully one-half of the state funding received by programs must be put towards staff wages and benefits.

It has been encouraging to see that workforce compensation and improvements have been addressed by President Biden in his infrastructure proposals and that the White House has called for addressing workforce pay with American Rescue Plan dollars. We must continue to push to ensure that these rescue funds reach the workforce. 

Despite this rare federal attention, the ignorance of early childhood workforce issues continues, even with the increase in visibility the pandemic has brought to our industry. National advocacy groups, whose focus is to improve the early childhood industry as a whole, ignore or refuse to acknowledge the plight of our workforce. Nowhere do they prioritize addressing the low wages, lack of benefits, or high turnover that plague the field.

This attitude is representative of a broader failure to understand that workforce issues underscore all the other areas of need. Without a robust workforce, expanding access is impossible. Without finding a way to supplement labor costs, by and large a program’s biggest expense, we will never be able to remove the prohibitive costs from parents’ shoulders. And without professional salaries and benefits in line with our K-12 counterparts, we will never be able to maintain the highly skilled workforce that is the bedrock of quality care.

CSCCE founding director Marcy Whitebook and her colleagues created Worthy Wage Day  nearly 30 years ago. Their aim was a national solution that fundamentally shifts the way we think about early childhood jobs and how we prioritize working with young children.

So little has changed in those decades, and the need has only increased. When we speak of reshaping the child care landscape, workforce issues must be prioritized and backed up with sufficient funding. Our teachers, children, and families deserve no less.

About the Author

Kyra Swenson is co-founder of Wisconsin Early Childhood Action Needed