The childcare and preschool labor market has long been characterized by low wages and high turnover despite ample evidence that quality care is critical to child development. That’s because, as families struggle with the cost of early care and education (ECE), teachers and care providers describe being paid “less than parking lot attendants and dog walkers.” They, too, are struggling.
Virtually all (95%) of this workforce is female, with women of color making up a greater share of the care providers and teachers who have less than a college degree.
Indeed, the level of formal education in this sector varies, from those providers with a GED or high school diploma to others who have college and graduate degrees (even workers on this end make far lower salaries compared to most other college graduates). A report from 2018 from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine even described the ECE workforce as experiencing “extreme economic distress.”
All this complicates policy discussions on children’s low levels of school readiness and the usual prescriptions for improving the quality of care and education. Recommendations to improve quality in this already labor-intensive sector often involve increasing teacher-child ratios or increasing requirements for teachers’ education or experience levels. Nearly all of the suggestions for improvements are quite costly—problematic because childcare is already so expensive and those who provide the care, the frontline workers, are too economically stressed to bear the cost of additional education and too overworked to bear higher workloads.
In particular, two policy initiatives increasingly adopted by states—Quality Rating and Improvement Systems and a trend toward greater funding of public preschool programming—are likely to affect the ECE workforce.
In the last dozen years or so, almost all of the 50 states have adopted or begun piloting a lengthy set of ratings criteria intended to monitor and help enhance the quality of non-parental child care settings. While the ultimate goal of these “Quality Rating and Improvement Systems” (QRIS) is to improve child wellbeing, increase school readiness rates, and ultimately reduce the achievement gap, the publication of quality ratings (often represented by numbers of stars) is also meant to improve parents’ decision-making ability and lead to quality-improving competition among child care suppliers. (Evidence that the QRIS by itself will improve school readiness is sparse.)
One measure incorporated into the QRIS is ECE caregiver and teacher qualifications. In Minnesota, for example, the Parent Aware rating system focuses mainly on the qualifications of lead teachers and providers, and the highest star rating requires that the lead teacher have a four-year college degree. Teachers or care providers also are expected to document their training experiences, including time spent on consultation, mentoring, and classroom training. Research by public policy scholar Chris Herbst has shown that adoption of QRIS has increased the supply of workers with some college education and can increase pay, especially when combined with state-funded wage compensation policies that reward staff for completing additional training or educational requirements (although the estimated effects on compensation from adoption of QRIS are small—possibly as low as a 1-2% increase in ECE workers’ income).
Because these quality rating systems only cover a fraction of Minnesota’s licensed care providers and the measures focus primarily on the qualifications of the main teacher, teaching assistants and others working in these settings (more likely to be people of color and those with little formal education beyond high school) do not benefit from wage increases.
A second, more important trend in early childhood policy that significantly affects the ECE workforce is the trend toward state and school districts funding preschool classrooms within the public school system (a trend elaborated on by Sandra Levitsky in this Dialogue). Some states have adopted voluntary universal preschool programs available to all families, regardless of income, while others fund programs targeted to the children of low-income families. As state funding flows to these public preschool settings and salaries there rise, more teachers are interested in applying and the quality of the applicant pool goes up. This is good news for ECE teachers, because preschool teachers employed in public schools are likely to be covered by union contracts and offered salaries on par with what other elementary teachers receive. The teachers who are hired for these positions may make much higher salaries than their peers working in private, nonprofit, or home care settings, and they are likely to have better health and retirement benefits as well.
Both the increased demand for education and training credentials via QRIS and the increase in funding for school-based preschool settings are likely to be beneficial for teachers who are already qualified for such positions.
However, these policies are likely to lead to within-market inequality between those with a high school diploma and those with more years of formal education (statuses that are, in turn, often dictated by the race, gender, and class background of the individual teachers).
Certainly the pay disparities created by school-based preschool are troubling. As increased demand for college-educated preschool teachers leads to higher pay for one segment of teachers but not others, ripple effects spread out across the labor force. Another critical concern is that turnover issues may be exacerbated in private and nonprofit preschool programs as teachers for 3- and 4-year-olds are recruited away by increased funding for public school-based programs. And as private preschool facilities experience difficulty hiring and maintaining staff, families who already pay up to 30% of their incomes in childcare will be priced-out. Infant and toddler care is inherently expensive, given the requisite low teacher-student ratios, and may become more so where qualification requirements increase staff turnover and decrease labor pools.
Even with federal and state subsidies for early care and education, childcare costs are formidable for many families.
Coupled with the fact that the ECE provider market outside public school settings is characterized by extremely low pay and high turnover, we can see that more help is clearly needed. One idea would be to increase federal spending for the childcare and development block grant that funds state childcare subsidies. The Child Care for Working Families Act proposed by Senator Patty Murray in 2017 and reintroduced in 2019 is one example of a policy that seeks to improve ECE compensation. In addition to capping family childcare payments to a share of income and funding universal preschool programs, Murray’s proposal specifically requires that federal childcare subsidies be tied to higher compensation rates for infant and toddler care workers.
As we attend to the need to improve early childhood education and care, policymakers and advocates must also attend to the need for a well-paid, low-turnover, professional workforce of providers. When ECE providers can make a living doing highly valued work, they can make a difference for American kids.
— Judy Temple is a Professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota.
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Center on Women, Gender, and Public Policy
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