I have owned an accredited early learning center for the past 13 years, serving 150 children and employing approximately 30 people. But this year we, like many others in the childcare field, are struggling to hire teachers, as early childhood centers confront a growing workforce crisis.
Centers are caught between increases in the minimum wage needed for child care workers to earn a living wage and our need to hire qualified teachers. We just can’t afford adequate wages to attract the high-quality early educators needed based on parent tuition alone. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report, Transforming the Financing of Early Care and Education, was right: we need a shared responsibility to fund high-quality early care and education.
When I opened my early learning center in 2006, minimum wage was $7.25/hour in Maryland. We attracted qualified teachers by paying them above that minimum wage—although wages remained low compared to other fields. Early childhood education has traditionally attracted those committed to the mission rather than the pay, as wages have never reflected the devotion and hard work caregivers and teachers provide.
Today, minimum wage is $10.10 an hour in Maryland—a 39 percent increase from 2006 and 9 percent up from 2017. While we still pay more than minimum wage, attracting any staff—much less those qualified—has become nearly impossible.
A recent article in U.S. News & World Report noted the child care worker crisis is getting worse despite, or perhaps because of, a booming economy. From big chains to corporate child care centers, all are beginning to feel the impact of a child care workforce pay squeeze. Centers are pinched between trying to provide incentives and expanded benefits to attract and retain qualified teachers and keeping child care affordable for families.
Minimum wage increases and differentials in hourly rates have made working at child care centers less attractive. Child care does not offer a significantly higher wage than most other services jobs requiring similar education levels so ECE staff are deciding they’d rather work in different industries, ones with fewer responsibilities and physical demands.
Teaching young children, and supporting their families, has become increasingly challenging as children, and the families they come from, arrive with needs ranging from housing, to mental health, to nutrition and basic needs. At the same time, well-intentioned efforts to ensure all children have high-quality early learning experiences, training requirements for staff and licensing expectations for programs have increased—but salaries have not kept pace with these new expectations.
Child care workers should be highly qualified. And they should be compensated fairly. But child care centers and family child care providers cannot keep increasing tuition to offer competitive wages that will retain and attract qualified caregivers. Families, especially those most in need of childcare, cannot afford it.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports care givers on average make $22,290. Consider that 200% of Federal Poverty Guidelines for a single-person household is $24,280–this means that child care providers make less than the eligibility criteria most often used to provide for free government-funded early learning services.
Research has shown the early years provide a unique opportunity to enhance outcomes for children. And research also supports enhancing education requirements for early childhood educators as a way to ensure ECE staff are knowledgeable and provide the highest level of care to support healthy child development during this crucial developmental period.
But if we fail to address provider compensation, our dedicated staff will simply choose to work elsewhere—especially when they can earn similar wages in a less demanding job and child care wages remain too low to repay the student loans that may have financed that newly required bachelor’s degree. Yet tapping families risks putting quality early learning out of their reach.
One solution would be leveraging all funding, public and private. Centers could pay some teacher salaries through public funding, alleviating some of the pinch on a center’s budget. In turn, the cost savings from publicly funded salaries could be used to elevate the pay of other child care providers working at the center. This will require increasing public funding and finding better ways to leverage existing public funds that were already too limited.
The new federal Preschool Development Grant Birth Through Five grant may help by giving states an opportunity to assess their fiscal needs, understand the true cost of quality and identify ways to leverage all resources and innovatively finance high-quality early education, including adequate compensation. For programs like mine, setting our sights on public funding is our best option for addressing workforce compensation issues while meeting the needs of the children and families we serve.
Tracy Jost is a Senior Policy Advisor at CEELO and a former Education Program Specialist at Maryland State Department of Education. She is the founder of Kid’s Campus Early Learning Center since 2006. She was one of 8 National fellows to be selected for CEELO’s 2015-2016 Leadership Academy.