Should Pre-K Teachers Be Earning Poverty Wages?

Some early childhood educators are paid the same as fast-food workers.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Jul 8, 2016· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

They’re critical to the educational development of the nation’s 12 million toddlers and children, arguably one of the country’s precious resources. Yet despite escalating job requirements—and increasing emphasis on education as a requirement in life—early childhood educators earn about as much as fast-food employees, and nearly half use food stamps or Medicaid to get by.

A study released Thursday, The Early Childhood Workforce Index, reveals that the poor wages, along with inconsistent standards and lack of clear policies, underscore a nationwide disconnect: We know early childhood education is valuable, but we don’t value the educators who deliver it.

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That’s especially true, academics say, in African American communities, where students and working parents struggle to close a stubborn black-white achievement gap.

“Brains are literally shaped by the process of thinking,” said Megan Gunnar, a child development professor at the University of Minnesota, in a press call announcing the study. There’s increasing evidence, she said, that the achievement gap “is already evident by the first or second birthday,” making quality early education “critically important.”

If the U.S. hopes to compete in a highly educated global workforce, “we need a highly trained, highly educated workforce,” and that starts in preschool and childcare, Gunnar said. Given that, “I do not know how I can convince people to get trained, take out loans, get a bachelor’s degree, and then go out and make minimum wage” and struggle to earn a living.

The report, by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, comes at what the center calls an “early care and education crisis in America” in which working parents can’t afford quality care for their children. At the same time, educators can’t make ends meet, and states aren’t providing “appropriate compensation, professional work environments, and training teachers need to help children succeed.”

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Neuroscientists and child development experts confirm that in a child’s life, the first five years—particularly the first three—have the greatest potential for setting a strong foundation for lifelong learning and health.

At the same time, an overall lack of high-quality preschool programs and skilled, well-paid teachers threatens to undermine the educational foundation of poor children of color, whose families are most likely to depend on those programs—both to close the school readiness gap with their white peers and to ease the financial burden of child care.

Among other things, the CSCCE study found that pre-K and childcare educators don’t bring home much pay: Hourly rates for childcare workers range from $8.72 in Mississippi to $12.24 in New York, while the nationwide median is $9.77. Preschool teachers on average bring home between roughly $11 (Idaho) and a little over $20 (Louisiana) an hour.

Not surprisingly, nearly half of all childcare and pre-K workers live in households that use public assistance, compared with about a quarter of the overall U.S. workforce.

Jennie Antunes, a longtime early childhood educator in Massachusetts who went back to college to earn a bachelor’s degree, told TakePart she couldn’t get by without her husband’s salary and benefits. Her son, she added, is a corrections officer “without a college degree—he earns almost twice as much as me. And here I am providing a service that helps reduce incarceration.”

“I’m one of the lucky ones, and this is sad,” she said.

Marcy Whitebook, CSCCE’s director, said education policy experts have to include early childhood education in their long-term plans if they want the nation to compete in the global economy. That’s important in low-income communities of color, where working parents might not be able to afford pre-K or child care if educators get a pay hike.

RELATED: In 33 States and D.C., Child Care Is More Expensive Than In-State College Tuition

“I think it’s really important that we have to think about some type of public investment in order to raise the wages,” she said, noting that programs for toddlers are the only part of the education system that depends on a parent’s income to provide them. “Children aren’t turned away from school because their parents can’t pay.”

But educators shouldn’t have to take on a financial burden, said Kristy Umfleet, an early childhood educator in North Carolina. She decided to teach young children because she loved it but soon found herself struggling to pay bills on time and unable to afford to enroll her own three-year-old in the program in which she teaches.

“We handle all these stressors and keep pushing forward to be the best we can be,” said Umfleet, who got a bachelor’s degree and a teaching certificate to keep up with the demands of her job. “You can say I’m passionate about teaching, but passion doesn’t pay the bills.”