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By Michele Rivest, Executive Director, NC Child Care Coalition

kids in schoolI started my own career in early education in college where I enrolled in a child psychology course and taught in a preschool. I didn’t know then what direction my career would take, but I was passionate about children’s development and always imagined that I would have a successful career, make a good living, and most importantly, make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged children.

Passion for working with young children is the main reason many young people are attracted to the early education field. In fact, 88% of those responding to a recent poll by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) reported they want to help young children succeed and plan on making early education their career.

But passion for serving young children isn’t enough. Inadequate pay and benefits, even for educators with post-secondary degrees, make early education a difficult, if not impossible career choice. In the NAEYC poll, 79% of early educators stated that finding a job with sufficient salary and benefits was the major obstacle to becoming an early education teacher and remaining in the field.

The wages and benefits for most early education teachers lag far behind where they should be for this important work. Child Care Services Association (CCSA) reported in its study, Working in Early Care and Education in North Carolina: 2015 Workforce Study” that even teachers with an associate’s degree in early childhood education earned just $10.67 an hour.  Other troubling findings from the study include:

  • One in ten teachers reported working two jobs to make ends meet to care for their own families.
  • 40 percent of all the early education teachers in North Carolina relied on some form of public assistance in the past year.
  • Only half of all teachers received some form of paid health insurance benefit.
  • Nearly 20% of the teachers stated they were likely to leave the field in three years for better pay and benefits.

Although not indicated in this report, we often hear that teachers are leaving the early education field for higher paying jobs in K-12 public education, or even fast food, retail or home improvement industries which pay more than $10.00 an hour even without a degree or advanced training.

So how do we offer early education teachers a worthy wage that matches their commitment, educational achievement, and the importance of their job? It’s a real challenge when most parents who pay for child care already struggle and can’t afford to pay more for child care tuition, which can be higher than attending public college in North Carolina, according to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute.

Child care directors who would like to compensate their teachers with higher wages and better benefits also struggle with tight budgets. Many centers operate on the basis of a combination of parent fees and child care subsidy payments for those parents who cannot afford to pay. But these subsidy rates are far below the actual cost of quality care, and centers can’t justify raising parent fees to pay teachers more.

In the end, it will likely take greater public investments in quality early childhood education to pay early education teachers the professional wages they deserve to be paid for the important work they do. Brain science now tells us a child’s first 2000 days are the most significant time in a child’s development, and economic studies reveal that investing in the early years offers the greatest return on investment.

But, today’s public investment just doesn’t match the importance of investing in the early years. Perhaps, greater public investments will happen when early education is viewed as important as K-12 public education is to a child’s future success in life. Expanding health care coverage for early education teachers, many of whom fall in the Medicaid coverage gap, would be an important step to ensure access to affordable health insurance and stretch their meager wages.

In North Carolina and across the nation, it’s up to each of us to make sure that we have teachers who are not only well qualified in terms of education and training, but well compensated, professionally supported, and publicly recognized for the important work they do.  It’s time to make this happen, not only for the sake of the early education teachers, but also for the thousands of young children they serve.  Only then will all children have the opportunity for a bright and promising future.

The NC Child Care Coalition’s annual early education forum will focus on advancing the early education workforce, and takes place on April 5th at the McKimmon Center in Raleigh. For more information, visit the Coalition’s website at: www.NCChildCareCoalition.org/events.html

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