Sarsha Martin wanted to teach young children. She persevered through three years as an early childhood educator in Jumpstart’s program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, and began her career as a kindergarten paraprofessional. Yet, the low pay, coupled with her student loan debt, forced Sarsha to leave the educator workforce. Sarsha’s brief tenure as an early educator is unfortunately not rare. Unless we act now, classrooms will continue to lose out on talent like her.
The pandemic has exacerbated the ongoing teacher shortage in preschool classrooms around the country. Early educators are burnt out, and potential teachers are dissuaded by the gaps in the system, including low wages, long hours, lack of training, and few classroom resources. The Build Back Better plan’s investment in early education is long overdue, but any new investment will only make a difference if we support current educators and bolster the workforce pipeline. In turn, this will help counteract the devastating impact of COVID-19 on gender equity and the economy, as 1.4 million more American mothers remain out of the larger workforce than the year before the pandemic.
Ensuring highly-trained teachers are in every classroom is especially critical in low-income communities, where students are most often underserved. The skills and well-being of these professionals are critical to students’ life-long success, but the high costs associated with obtaining a degree, historically low pay, and limited to no professional development or health care benefits remain as systemic obstacles.
The median annual wage for preschool teachers was $31,930 last year, while kindergarten and elementary school teachers earned nearly double. This inequity is especially felt across gender and race, as the early educator workforce is overwhelmingly women and over 40% people of color. The wage gap is further compounded by the reality that birth-through-five educators often are not eligible for student loan forgiveness. Today, when the average college student graduates with nearly $40,000 of debt, this amount of debt can drive which field an individual pursues.
Some organizations have been working to fill the teacher workforce gap. Jumpstart’s AmeriCorps members—college students who are recruited and trained to implement quality pre-K curriculum—are a pipeline of early educators who reflect the communities they are working in. Nearly 70% of Jumpstart alumni identify as people of color, and half are first-generation college students. Not only does this model foster quality education for students, but it also provides real-world training for future educators. However, only robust federal action can equip every classroom with well-trained and appropriately compensated educators.
To help incentivize top talent to enter and remain in the early childhood sector, Congress should ensure that providers offer wages that are comparable to those for elementary educators with similar credentials and experience and, at a minimum, provide a living wage for all staff. The U.S. House Education & Labor Committee included these provisions in its Build Back Better Act legislation it recently approved. These provisions should be included in the early education legislation being finalized now. It is also crucial that Congress appropriates sufficient funding so that providers will be able to offer competitive compensation without having to resort to increasing their fees for families. The nearly $500 billion included in the House Education & Labor Committee bill is exactly the kind of investment that is required, and Congressional leaders must maintain that level of commitment even as pressure ramps up to reduce the size of the overall package.
Lawmakers must also advance the Early Educator Loan Assistance proposal included in the Child Care is Infrastructure Act introduced by Rep. Katherine Clark. Student loan assistance will grow more relevant to recruitment and retention of educators, particularly as the Biden Administration extends pre-K to all three and four-year-olds. It is also essential for Congress and the Administration to help current educators acquire additional credentials by funding innovative and flexible alternatives like evening programs, credits for previous field experience, Federal Work-Study, and free access to community college.
Additionally, the Building an Economy for Families Act introduced by Rep. Richard Neal provides for a refundable payroll tax credit for early education providers who increase employee compensation. The bill also permanently extends the child tax credit and child and dependent care credit, among other worker-friendly provisions that will assist in making early childhood education more accessible for families and more competitive for educators. These provisions were reported favorably out of the House Ways and Means Committee this month and it is critical that they be included in the final reconciliation bill.
We are on the cusp of the most significant federal investment in educating and caring for young children in decades, but lawmakers must support crucial provisions that provide passionate and skilled people like Sarsha with the best chance at a career in early education.