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America must focus on the early childhood education workforce

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As Congress, states, and communities increasingly invest more in early childhood programs to improve both access and quality for working parents and their children, one piece of the puzzle too often ignored is how to support the workforce. Early care and education professionals provide the next generation of citizens and leaders the opportunity to build the foundations of educational and lifelong success. All the skills, knowledge, and wellbeing of these professionals are inseparable from the quality of early childhood learning across our nation. As a Harvard study observed, “The essence of quality in early childhood services is embodied in the expertise, skills, and relationship building capacities of their staff.”

Despite their importance, these workers are chronically underpaid and undervalued, leaving the field with insufficient resources in terms of high quality staff. The median wage for child care staff is around $23,000 a year, less than half what an elementary teacher makes, despite scientific evidence the first years of life indeed coincide with the most important period of brain development. While the issue of pay for K-12 teachers is becoming mainstream, as this year alone the governors of 22 states have proposed salary increases for teachers, the same level of attention has not been given to the early childhood field. This further exacerbates salary inequities and the inability to recruit and retain high quality individuals.

Early childhood teacher salaries are determined by their employers, who are already operating on razor thin margins, with their budgets consisting almost entirely of tuition paid by families of enrolled children. Employers are stretched thin as they try to balance affordable tuition for families with fair wages for employees. The field is at a standstill, as the cost for parents to enroll their child in a program is so high they cannot afford to pay more, while the workforce cannot afford to keep living on poverty level salaries.

The recent and significant federal funding increases for the Child Care and Development Block Grant shows what can happen when attention is given to the needs of the workforce. While Congress does not have a direct role in setting salary levels, the increased funding has allowed states to improve payment rates for providers resulting in increased budgets to pay for, among other priorities, teacher salaries. Some states have also used the new funds to support workforce development with bonuses and stipends for staff to obtain credentials and degrees.

The recent increases to the Child Care and Development Block Grant have helped states address these issues, but there is still a long way to go to make meaningful improvements. Congress should consider additional mechanisms that would make the early care and education field more attractive, the paycheck more lucrative, and the job more worthwhile, while improving outcomes for children and families. Those additional mechanisms could include grants, loan assistance, and apprenticeships.

Individuals in similar industries, such as teachers in public preschool and elementary classrooms, are often eligible for grants to pursue a degree and assistance repaying loans taken while enrolled in college. All these incentives entice individuals to enter a specific profession and encourage them to stay employed, often in areas where there is high demand for a skilled workforce. Assistance with loan payments allows more of their paychecks to reach their bank accounts. The first college loan and loan repayment programs were developed to change the trajectory of the K-12 education system by increasing the number and quality of teachers in schools. It is time Congress consider doing the same for the early care and education system in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Apprenticeship programs are another option providing great opportunity. The Workforce Innovation Opportunity Act, which Congress passed with broad bipartisan support in 2014, commissioned the Labor Department to study effective career pathways for the early care and education field. The study concluded that apprenticeships offer a “comprehensive approach to helping early childhood educators enter and advance” in this field. By combining classroom instruction, on the job training, and mentorships, apprenticeships are a holistic program complete with an “earn while you learn” approach. Often paired with wage increases for current workers, apprenticeships provide opportunities for adults of every age to enhance their skills. The apprenticeship model in this field is one that Congress, states, and communities should continue supporting and prioritizing.

Child care and education programs are a way to fight intergenerational poverty, yet the very professionals responsible for caring for children and helping to break that cycle are often living in poverty themselves. As the need for child care for working families increases, the need for a high quality workforce will also expand, and these problems plaguing the field will only grow. Congress should consider the ways it could support the early care and education professionals who are helping both the working parents of today and the workforce of the future achieve great success.

Linda Smith is director of the Early Childhood Initiative at the Bipartisan Policy Center and was a critical architect of the military child care system. Kathlyn McHenry is a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former staffer with the House Education and Workforce Committee.

Tags Apprenticeship Congress Economics Education Family Government Labor

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