Early childhood education serves a perpetual dual purpose: providing critical early learning experiences during a child’s first years of life and supporting parents to work and to further their child’s learning outside of the classroom. For these reasons, we must acknowledge that early educators are essential to the stability of our society. As with many essential workers, early educators are navigating serious challenges right now. Some have had to close their doors as a result of families going into shelter-in-place. Others have remained open to serve first responders and essential workers, putting themselves at risk. They are working closely with families to make sure critical early learning experiences are still taking place. They are doing all of this while being paid poverty wages (the average wage for an early childhood educator is $11/hour).
Our national folly is that we have been here before. Historically, the U.S. has acknowledged that early educators are essential, but only in times of crisis. In World War II, we provisioned for a national early childhood education system, overseen by the Department of Defense. Undergirded by strong quality program standards, robust professional preparation experiences for educators, professional appropriate compensation – this system supported the education and care of young children while Rosie the Riveter went to work. We did the same during the Great Depression to enable workers to build our highways and bridges, and during the pandemic of 1918 to enable healthcare workers to care for the sick. The problem, however, with tying investment in our early childhood programs and their educators to a national crisis is that working families always need early educators.
Despite modest supports for early education provided in Congressional stimulus packages, many programs—just like other small businesses—will not be able to reopen when the rest of us return to work. We will lose educators from our workforce. Families coming out of shelter-in-place will then face another crisis: a lack of affordable, quality early childhood and fewer early educators to teach their children.
It is well beyond time to reconsider our stance on early education as a nation. The status quo is not only deeply inequitable for the early education workforce, young children, and families living in poverty, it hinders the functionality of our society. Given the dual purpose early educators play in our society, policy reforms at all levels must significantly increase public investment in the workforce insuring that all early educators have access to preparation and that they are compensated in a manner commensurate with the skills needed to do the complex work of teaching young children. At the same time, public investment must be directed to relieving the burden of high cost to families (the cost of early education exceeds college tuition in 28 states). Federal policy reforms have been proposed that provide robust funding for early education, including increases in compensation. Still new innovations and ideas will spring from this pandemic, as is the wont of American ingenuity.
As a former early educator who had to leave the classroom because I could not afford to live on poverty wages, I know what educators, advocates, and many policymakers already know: we must do better for the early education workforce. We must do so to enhance our children’s early learning experiences, for families struggling to make ends meet, and for our society as a whole. The time to reinvigorate our early education system and support the workforce durably is now – not in the midst of the next crisis.