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States stuck trying to fix early ed pay as feds drop the ball

Earlier this year, I spent some time in Milwaukee, Wisconsin learning about local efforts to draw new early childhood teachers into the field by creating programs that allow high school students to earn credentials and by offering free, supportive routes for current teachers to pursue degrees. As I interviewed experts about these efforts, I heard one resounding conclusion: Programs like these are important, but without increasing worker pay to make the job tenable in the long term, these could be short-term solutions. Although several of the programs I profiled in Milwaukee led to higher wages for workers, not all centers can afford to increase hourly pay.

Legislation proposed by the Biden administration would have helped address the lack of adequate pay by providing more funding for the child care industry and boosting the minimum wage of child care workers. In 2021, workers in this field made a mean annual wage of $27,680, or $13.31 per hour, an amount that varies depending on the type of center and age of children receiving care. The legislation is currently stalled in Congress.

In the meantime, there have been some state-led efforts to tackle the issue of compensation. In Washington, D.C., thousands of early childhood educators are poised to receive checks of at least $10,000 to boost their pay. In Washington state, $36 million will be allocated from a new funding stream to increase wages for early educators and another $30 million will go toward providing health care coverage for early childhood workers. In Maine, a $12 million bill proposed this year would increase pay for child care workers and help train and recruit workers. And last year, Minnesota legislators allocated $300 million to a program that will increase pay for child care workers, although that program ends in June 2023.

Just a small boost in income may be beneficial, even though it falls short of what advocates say is the ultimate goal of creating pay parity with K-12 teachers.

“We have a system where we have teachers working with 4-year-olds in school-based settings, and those teachers are paid like other K-12 teachers,” said Daphna Bassok, a researcher and associate professor of early childhood education and public policy at the University of Virginia. But, she added, early childhood teachers outside the school system often receive much lower pay, get fewer breaks during the year and many do without the benefits, such as health care, provided by school districts. Together, these factors contribute to high turnover rates, program instability and can impact the experiences of young children in care.

Evidence suggests that focusing on wages in early ed could help stabilize the industry. In 2019, Bassok was part of a Virginia research team that hoped to reduce financial stress and turnover by using federal funds to provide $1,500 in financial incentives to early educators. The program, which ran in partnership with the state Department of Education and the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation, made an impact. It cut turnover rates in half at participating child care centers when compared to centers where teachers did not receive additional funds. (The additional money had no impact on early ed teachers in school settings, which researchers attribute to higher earnings among that group.)

“Teachers in child care are much more likely to be experiencing financial stress to begin with, and [to] be making wages that are much, much lower [than teachers in schools],” said Bassok. That’s why a $1,500 payment, which seems in the grand scheme of things rather small, was able to make a difference in the child care context.”

As I was reporting the story about Milwaukee’s efforts, I also heard a lot about efforts in Hawaii, which has faced acute worker shortages and has a higher cost of living than the national average. During the pandemic, Hawaii has experienced both a decrease in the capacity of child care centers and in the number of centers offering care. Last year, legislators proposed a stipend for students at the University of Hawaii who focus on early education as well as stipends and wage increases for early childhood workers. Separately, the University of Hawaii at Manoa, which received a grant last year from the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, is trying to adopt solutions similar to those in Milwaukee by making it easier for students to complete their bachelor’s degree and get into early ed classrooms. That involves creating partnerships between universities and community colleges, creating apprenticeship models and improving teacher pay.

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Educators in Hawaii’s teacher prep programs say the multi-faceted approach of addressing compensation, retention and retention is necessary to boost the industry.

“For decades, training and compensation for the early care and education workforce in Hawai’i have been sorely neglected,” said Theresa Lock, an elementary instructor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa College of Education, in a statement. “Well-prepared and well-compensated teachers will ensure that all children make significant and sustained gains in physical, cognitive, social and emotional development.”

This story about child care wages was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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With federal child care help stalled, states are trying to raise wages and stabilize the industry on their own.