Early education coalition searches for answers to raise teacher pay, even as budgets are cratering

Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. 

In some states, child care can cost as much as college tuition. But those costs don’t translate into higher wages for those who work in the industry; child care staff aren’t paid like college professors.

On average, child care employees and early educators earn less than half as much as K-12 teachers. They are more likely than other educators to live in poverty and less likely to have health insurance.

Billions in federal aid propped up the industry during the pandemic, but those funds ran out this fall. As a result, child care centers have already started reporting decreased wages and benefits.

In the midst of this crisis, some states are trying to come up with their own creative solutions. The Early Educator Investment Collaborative, a coalition of philanthropies that provide grants to support early childhood programs, is sending about $9 million in grants to Louisiana, Colorado and D.C. to find long-term answers for raising early educators’ pay.

“We knew that the federal investment was coming to a close,” said Ola Friday, director of the collaborative. “So, we turned our attention to what was happening at the state and local levels and thought that this was now a really ripe opportunity to support those states and localities that were trying to be innovative and creative and think outside the box.”

As one example, a $2.4 million grant to the District of Columbia will go toward improving work the district already started on boosting wages and benefits. Two years ago, D.C. started an Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund, one of the first large-scale programs in the nation to put child care and early educator pay on par with K-12 teacher starting wages.

That program, which the D.C. Council paid for with a wealth tax, uses between $53 million and $73 million annually to raise early educator pay by up to $14,000 a year so that it aligns with the minimum salary received by D.C. public school teachers with a similar education.

But the cost of this program will increase as minimum teacher wages rise, and the city must come up with a way to fund those additional costs.

Additionally, District of Columbia public school teachers are paid more based on experience, and they also receive a pay bump, or a salary step increase, each year. Currently, the early ed pay equity fund does not account for experience or annual step increases.

Sara Mead, deputy superintendent of early learning for the D.C. district, said it will use part of the Early Education Investment Collaborative grant on researching ways to fix those problems. And, she added, “part of what we’re doing with the grant money is also documenting what we’re doing so that other states can learn from us.”

Because child care is not primarily funded by the federal government, the quality and cost vary by state. A solution to raising child care wages in one state may not be feasible in another, but without significant federal investment, states will need to find their own funding sources to prop up an industry that has been collapsing for a while, said Annie Dade, a policy analyst with the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It is a shift, hopefully, that early education is a public good and should be funded as such,” said Dade. “And then looking for the public funding to do so is the next logical step.”

The collaborative is also sending Louisiana about $3 million; another $3.8 million in grant funding will go to Colorado. One step of Colorado’s grant proposal includes having a liaison dedicated to early ed compensation in various state agencies so that each department can contribute to finding solutions for low pay among child care staff. In Louisiana, part of the grant will be used to help local parishes come up with ways to raise money for early ed pay.

Friday, the collaborative’s leader, said the point of the grants is to help states “put into place the infrastructure, the capacity, the resources, the funding, so that we can get to the ultimate goal of increased long-term compensation for the workforce.”

This story about early childhood education salaries was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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