Will the low wages for early childhood education teachers increase?

October 18, 2021

Brandes Gress

Children, from birth to the age of 5, grow faster than at any other time in their lives. Rapid and significant changes occur across all developmental domains including physical, social, emotional, cognitive, and linguistic. Yet, educators who work with this age group are notoriously underpaid. Low salaries continue to be the norm across the U.S., regardless that research repeatedly highlights the positive impact early childhood education can have on the future lives of children.

Admittedly, several states have implemented universal preschool programs to encourage development and education in the early years.  This has not been matched by an increase in the wages and professional development of early childhood educators, especially on a national level. Because of this, many early childhood educators qualify for government assistance and struggle to make ends meet.

Low salaries continue to be the norm across the U.S., regardless that research repeatedly highlights the positive impact early childhood education can have on the future lives of children.

 

On April 28th, 2021, President Biden announced the American Families Plan. The plan proposes universal preschools for all 3 and 4 year old children, and the implementation of a $15 minimum hourly wage for childcare workers. This addresses the 2 elements plaguing the early education field: unequal access to well-rounded preschool programs for children, and low wages for early childhood educators.

Does the American Families Plan resolve the issues that cripple the early education field or is it merely a band-aid on a festering wound?

Investing early

By the age of 6, a child’s brain is 90% its adult size. Research, conducted across fields such as neuroscience, psychology, education, and child development, reveal the robust changes that occur during this crucial period, and the impact quality education in the first 5 years has on development. After collating numerous studies, the Center of Disease Control reported that early childhood education programs were associated with improvements in:

  • cognitive development
  • emotional development
  • self-regulation
  • academic achievement

In 2019, the federal government allocated over $9 billion to Head Start to fund early education programs in all 50 states. Since its establishment in 1965, Head Start has provided quality education, nutrition, health, and social services to over 37 million children. This program not only benefits early development, but also has positive effects on children well into their adult life.

According to the National Head Start Association, children who attended Head Start programs:

  • are more likely to graduate high school, attend college, and receive a postsecondary license or certification
  • less likely to be unemployed and in poor health as adults
  • 19% less likely to smoke than their siblings who did not attend the program

With the benefits of high quality preschool education continuing into adulthood, the economic gains from investing in well-rounded early education can save U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars annually. The Center for American Progress report that the provision of preschool education results in economic benefits in excess of $83 billion per year. This is because children who attend high-quality preschool are less likely to be arrested, more likely to pursue postsecondary education, less likely to need government assistance as adults, and less likely to need grade retention.

Although there a clear link to the developmental, health, and economic benefits of early education, Head Start teachers earn an average salary of $25,308. Depending on the size of their household, this salary is so low that it can place these teachers below the poverty line and reliant on government financial assistance.

Who pays for education?

Public school education is backed by local, state, and federal funding. Although some preschool programs are also funded by the same sources, the money allocated is not the same.

Fun fact

Arizona, Connecticut, and Kansas use money from tobacco settlements to fund pre-k, and Missouri is the only state that uses non-lottery gambling revenue to fund its pre-k programs.

Early childhood education K-12 education
Governance

Nothing formalized in most states

State boards of education and local school boards

Finance

Multiple, chaotic funding

Guaranteed tax base

Professional certifications

None universally required

Required to teach

Regulations

The minimum is state required; all else is voluntary

Required accreditation

K-12 public schools have guaranteed funding from federal, state, and local governments. The U.S. government spends an estimated $640 billion annually on K-12 education, with the vast majority coming from state and local governments. States are constitutionally responsible for funding their own K-12 education, although the federal government provides 7.8%. Property tax, sales tax, and income tax are examples of how states get money to fund public school education. Preschool is not mandatory and therefore the funding for pre-k programs largely falls on the shoulders of parents and families.

This lack of sufficient government funding has created a gridlock is created where parents can’t afford to pay more, and educators can’t afford to make less.

 

In a report by the Economic Policy Institute, government spending in early childhood education is estimated as $34 billion, with parents spending a colossal $42 billion. In 2016, it was disclosed that parents were paying $7.60 per hour for center-based care. Compared to the $640 billion spent annually on K-12 education, $34 billion on early childhood education is disproportionate and grossly inadequate.  This lack of sufficient government funding has created a gridlock is created where parents can’t afford to pay more, and educators can’t afford to make less.

HighChart Data
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Figured based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics

Compared to kindergarten and elementary school teachers, early childhood educators make a fraction of the salary. A bachelor’s degree in early childhood education is the lowest earning major when ranked against 137 college majors. Despite research highlighting the importance of early childhood education, educators in this field do not receive a salary that matches the gravity of their work.

Fun fact

Universal pre-k was started in France during the 1830’s by Ecoles Maternelles.

Advancing the profession

In 2015, the National Association for Education of Young Children (NAEYC) surveyed nearly 4,000 educators. From survey participants, 84% reported that low pay was the biggest or one of the biggest challenges they faced in this profession. There are currently 3 states that have implemented universal pre-k. By examining preschool teacher wages in these 3 states, it is possible to project how this change in education policies may look on a national level.

Georgia established the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) in 2004. DECAL provides resources to childcare and early learning programs, and funds teacher salaries.

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Compared to the national average, pre-k teachers in Georgia have the possibility of earning higher salaries. A certified T5 teacher with 6-7 years of experience can earn $47,083, placing their annual salary about $15,000 above the national average. The higher salaries in Georgia are correspond to additional education. A certified T4 teacher holds a bachelor’s degree and a certificate, and a certified T5 teacher has a master’s degree and a teaching certificate. Additional education and certification is required for certain teaching positions, and according to the NAYEC study, 83% of early educators support a baseline set of qualifications for a higher salary.

Yet, perhaps as states begin to individually implement their own universal pre-k programs, there is reason for hope.

 

The American Families Plan proposes a $15 and hour minimum wage for all early education teachers. This means that the national average hourly wage for childcare workers, which currently sits at $12.88, would increase.  Unfortunately, for preschool teachers, who currently make a national average of $15.35 per hour, there would be no increase in income.

Comparing the low wages of early educators to the importance of their job is confronting. Yet, perhaps as states begin to individually implement their own universal pre-k programs, there is reason for hope. Washington D.C. and 7 states have commenced a program of universal pre-k and others plan to follow their lead. A national partnership with states to adequately fund pre-k and increase wages of early childhood educators may minimize wage disparity between early and K-12 education and rectify the underpayment of the professionals in this education sector.

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