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Early childhood educators, and all educators, deserve decent pay.

May 2, 2022

Why I Demand Worthy Wages for Early Childhood Educators

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Whether you follow the science or just common sense, we all know that how we care for and educate our youngest children matters — a lot. Officials talk a big game about giving every child a strong start in life. But there is a huge disconnect between what many leaders say they value and what they do about it. Worthy Wage Day is a good time to call them out.

Child care is one of the lowest-paid occupations in the United States. Our whole system, if you can call it that, is based on the good intentions of individual providers and nonprofits, or the profit-seeking motives of giant corporations. This patchwork of providers leaves every family on its own to find the best early childhood education program it can afford.

This means well-to-do families can find reasonably good or excellent child care providers or preschools for their kids, while families without means do the best they can.

It’s kind of crazy when you think about it. Our most precious resource — our infants, toddlers and preschoolers — are living in a dog-eat-dog world where each family fends for itself while their children’s caregivers are paid very little. It’s a classic “race to the bottom.”

In the same way that early education should not be a crapshoot for families, it should not be — and should never have been — an underpaid and under-supported job for the people who do this important work. Early childhood educators know they’re not going to get rich in this profession, but it is a national disgrace that so many can barely scrape by.

The median wage of child care workers in the United States is just $13.22 an hour, according to the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment. Compare that with the average hourly pay for babysitters, who can take in north of $20 an hour for watching only two kids — and are not expected to provide enrichment of any kind. For all the indignity of being considered babysitters, many prekindergarten teachers say they’d actually get a bump up if they earned babysitters’ pay.

As far as annual salaries go, prekindergarten teachers made a median salary of about $32,000 in 2020, according to U.S. News & World Report. The lowest-paid 25 percent of these workers made just over $26,000. These are poverty wages. No one working full time should have to live in poverty, especially not the people we entrust with our children.

While pandemic disruptions stretched from months to years, things only got worse as child care centers closed and then became more expensive when they reopened — all at a time when Republicans in Congress have been refusing to provide any more COVID-19 relief.

We all, naturally, see early childhood education through the lens of our own experiences.

For my parents, that meant entrusting us kids to the watchful eyes of our grandmother, our aunts and uncles, and some reliable neighbors. It truly was a village raising us, and they provided the values and models of behavior that laid the foundation for more formal education later. For my wife and me, we did the same thing most parents do: We sought out the best preschools we could afford.

Fast-forward to today. First, a huge demographic shift is occurring. Millennials and Generation Z are fewer in number and higher in demand as preschool educators. The economy is booming, with near-record low unemployment. And, unlike in previous generations, when women — half the population — were ushered into the “caring professions” like teaching and nursing, today’s young women can pursue careers in any profession and at higher pay. As a country, we must make careers at all levels of education attractive options to earn a good living.

What we need is a system in which our government evens out educational opportunities for our youngest children, no matter what their ZIP code, how recently they arrived in this country or how much money their families have.

Other advanced countries include these opportunities in their social safety nets. We do not. But President Biden has a plan to make this happen, and he will make it happen if our lawmakers and the voters who elected them show the will to get it done.

If not, the nation’s preschools will continue to be wildly inequitable, and early childhood educators will continue to leave the profession they love but cannot live on.

Let’s do better than that. This Worthy Wage Day, May 1, let’s tell our elected officials that early childhood educators need a worthy wage.

Republished with permission from AFT Voices.

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