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A Living Wage for Early Childhood Educators

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us that, in addition to building a foundation for our children’s futures, early care and education (ECE) programs provide foundational support to the economy.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that issues related to affordability and access to care led state economies to lose over $1 billion each year, even prior to the pandemic! They estimate a loss of $3.47 billion in RFA’s home state, Pennsylvania. When families miss work or delay returning to the workforce because they can’t find childcare, we all lose out.

Even though it is fundamental to our economy and a crucial investment in our children’s futures, ECE has been persistently underfunded and ECE educators have been denied a living wage. In a 2018 report, the Center for American Progress explained how funding and tuition is spent in ECE and why crucial early childhood educators are still paid so little. According to the Center for the Study of Childcare Employment and the Economic Policy Institute, early childhood teachers with a bachelor’s degree are paid 22% less than teachers in the K-8 system. In Pennsylvania, early childhood teachers are over 13 times more likely to be in poverty than K-8 teachers. (For more information about early childhood educator compensation and pay inequities, see the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment’s Early Childhood Workforce Index, and be sure to check out their clear policy recommendations.)

It is promising to see increased momentum around support for ECE and investments in children’s futures recently. The funds from the federal American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 have already helped and will continue to help save the sector. The proposed American Families Plan could expand access to high-quality preschool for three- and four-year-olds and make sure that families do not pay more than 7% of their income on early childhood education. The plan would also mandate that all employees in participating preschool programs will earn at least $15 per hour, and that their pay would be on par with kindergarten teachers with the same credentials.

As proposed, the American Families Plan would greatly increase the compensation of early childhood educators. In a recent evaluation, RFA collected perspectives from Philadelphia pre-K teachers about what would help support their continued work in the profession. We capture teacher’s views on the most essential areas of support in a set of illustrated findings, which highlight the importance of adequate pay for early childhood teacher retention. Denying ECE educators a living wage affects their well-being and the well-being of their families. Insufficient compensation also poses challenges for providing quality ECE and plays a role in the high turnover rate for early childhood educators.

Improving compensation for early childhood educators could support a healthy, stable workforce so that they can do the most important work: care for and shape the minds of our youngest children. The proposed $15 minimum wage for early childhood educators is an important first step. However, raising wages for all ECE workers will not necessarily address the current racial wage gaps. African American early educators earn $0.78 less per hour than White early educators on average. Policymakers must ensure that ECE workers are paid sufficiently and equitably.