By Michele Rivest
Across the country and here in North Carolina, early childhood teachers are woefully underpaid for the important work they do supporting young children’s development and early learning. Although studies show that high-quality early education programs build a solid foundation for a child’s future, this data has not led to further investment in appropriate salaries for educators. Early education salaries simply don’t match up to the level of importance we put on early education. It doesn’t have to be this way: there are steps legislators can take to boost early educator pay and improve the quality of our early education programs.
In North Carolina, early education teachers—even those with college degrees—earn less than $11.00 per hour.[i] There are serious consequences to paying qualified teachers such low wages.
Nationally child care workers’ families are more than twice as likely to live in poverty than other workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute.[ii] Many early education teachers report that they are working two jobs, and nearly 40 percent rely on some form of public assistance just to make ends meet and support their own families. Teachers who are themselves impoverished may not have the personal resources to give children quality attention and instruction when they are facing economic challenges of their own.
More than one-third of all teachers report that low compensation is the top reason they are leaving the field, and high turnover among early childhood teachers adversely affects young children’s development and learning. Young children need consistent stable relationships with adults in order to thrive. During the early years, children learn to form attachments and develop the social and emotional skills needed for success in school and work. When different teachers cycle through the classroom, children experience stress and struggle to master these foundational skills.
North Carolina is experiencing an early childhood teacher shortage that will only become worse in the years ahead unless something is done to solve the early education teacher compensation issue. The talent pipeline is shrinking with fewer new teachers entering the early education field. North Carolina’s Community Colleges report a 22 percent decline in their early education programs since 2008. Child care programs across the state report that it is becoming increasingly difficult to attract and keep qualified teachers.
Marcy Whitebrook, Director of the Center for Child Care Employment acknowledges this trend, “We have 20th century earnings for our 21st century hopes,” she explains. “Right now if you graduate from college with a degree in early-childhood education, you have the lowest projected earnings of all college graduates. This is not a recruitment strategy.”
So what can be done to address this crisis and who pays the added costs of fair teacher compensation? It’s a challenge that requires balancing what parents can afford to pay and what child care programs can afford to pay their staff. Parents already pay the bulk of the cost for child care and it is one of the biggest expenses families face. Infant care averages more than $9,000 per year in North Carolina and costs 40.7 percent more per year than in-state tuition for 4-year public college according to the Economic Policy Institute. [iii]
On the other hand, child care programs receive below market rates to serve low-income children and families receiving child care subsidies and can’t price the cost of their services beyond what private paying parents can afford to pay. Without adequate rates and high parent fees, many child care programs simply lack the financial resources to pay their teachers better wages.
Clearly, the persistent problem of low wages for early childhood teachers needs a public policy solution. The North Carolina Early Education Coalition is calling for a state-level salary supplement program to recognize and retain early education teachers with at least an Associate Degree in early education. Early education teachers who remain in the field for one year would receive annual salary boosts based on their education levels. This is the first step toward a bigger policy solution which would include fair market rates for child care programs that factor in the true cost for qualified early education teachers.
It’s time to put early childhood teachers first as we continue to work to advance early education. Let’s work together to find a way to give them worthy wages for the important work they do. Only then will we deliver on the promise of early education to advance young children’s development and learning and our state’s future prosperity.
Michele Rivest is the policy director of the NC Early Education Coalition
[i] North Carolina 2015 Early Childhood Workforce Study. Child Care Services Association, December 2015.
[ii] It’s time for an ambitious national investment in America’s children, Economic Policy Institute, April 2016
[iii] Child care is out of reach for working families earning the minimum wage, Economic Policy Institute, October 2017.