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Our future depends upon caring for the early educators

Our future depends upon caring for the early educators
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Our nation’s economic recovery depends on strengthening an essential workforce tragically overlooked and under-appreciated for decades: the early learning and childcare educators who enable parents to work and raise healthy, successful children. As people go back to work, our future depends upon caring for the early educators who care for our children — and ensuring they are well-prepared, qualified, and better compensated.

This is a matter of economic well-being and racial justice. According to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, nearly half of this workforce is women of color who earn less than their peers. In fact, nearly half earn poverty-level wages and rely on public assistance. 

The low wages paid to even the most educated early childhood professionals aren’t enough to withstand continued economic upheavals for families. There are promising solutions. Some states and municipalities have partially addressed this issue by paying prekindergarten teachers the same as their K-12 counterparts. Now is the time to make such efforts national and system-wide for early care and education.

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Profit margins for providers of home-and center-based care were slim or non-existent before COVID-19. Shelter-in-place rules decimated their businesses. Due to structural racism, relatively few had the banking relationships necessary to gain access to payroll protection or small business loans in the stimulus packages. 

According to research by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, America is likely to lose 50 percent or more of its quality early childhood providers. They won’t be there for our children because they can’t sacrifice any more than they have.

As we develop post-pandemic solutions and address the ingrained, systemic barriers facing black, indigenous, and people of color in this country, we must ensure that our early educators are well-prepared and appropriately compensated so that all children can learn and grow. 

Children who experience quality learning early on do better in school and life. And as the backbone of the American economy, parents and caregivers cannot and will not return to work without access to quality educators with whom they can trust as partners in the health, physical, socio-emotional, and intellectual development of their children. 

We need policy reforms that increase and sustain public investment in the workforce, ensuring that all early educators have access to preparation and professional development and that they are paid commensurate with the skills needed to do the complex work of teaching young children. We also must ease the burden on parents paying the high cost of care, which in over half the states exceeds that of public college tuition, according to Child Care Aware.

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Now is the time to finally get it right. New research by the Bipartisan Policy Center notes that childcare is the second biggest concern for small business owners right now. Save the Children Action Network’s recent national survey shows that 87 percent of voters support providing federal assistance to ensure current childcare providers are able to make payroll and other expenses, and 80 percent favor giving the childcare industry targeted federal assistance.

We can use tuition assistance and other economic incentives to expand affordable preparation and professional development through higher education. And, we can keep providers in business by providing guaranteed income when fee for service isn’t possible, as has been the case during this crisis.

Philanthropy is doing its part, but can’t do it alone. The Early Educator Investment Collaborative, a group of eight national early childhood funders, has pooled resources to catalyze policymakers, early educators, researchers, and others to redesign the preparation and compensation pathways for early educators. We need everybody at the table — local, state, and federal policymakers, early educators, business and community leaders, and families — backing these kinds of supports so that essential childcare workers feel valued and can provide the critical service of educating our youngest learners. 

Job security and a professional wage are necessary to build a professional, stable early childhood workforce. As federal policymakers wrestle with steps to recover from this unprecedented crisis, we urge them to finally dismantle the barriers that hold back black, indigenous, and people of color and elevate the importance of quality childcare and early learning educators and provide funding to finally build the effective system that all of our children, families, and early educators deserve. 

Sara Vecchiotti is the vice president for Research and Program Innovation at the Foundation for Child Development and Rebecca E. Gomez is Education Program Officer at the Heising-Simons Foundation. They co-chair the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, which also includes the Buffet Early Childhood Fund, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ballmer Group, the Bezos Family Foundation, the Stranahan Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.