Heising-Simons Foundation is helping transform the early childhood education workforce.

Written by Michael Blanding
This article is part of The Stories that Make Us, featuring key efforts in the Foundation’s history.

Students and teachers at EDvance College. Photos by: Drew Bird.

“After years and years, someone created an institution that really supported the early childhood workforce."

For as long as she could remember, Loren Smith wanted to be a preschool teacher. The San Francisco native was inspired by her own preschool teacher—her grandmother—who displayed an infectious love for the profession. At the same time, her grandmother also emphasized the importance of adult learning.

“Get your education,” she told her granddaughter. “You can’t expect higher-order thinking to happen in the children, if you haven’t partaken in it yourself.”

That was easier said than done for Smith, who took early childhood education courses at community college for two years, only to realize she was ineligible for a degree without general education courses. She enrolled in another program at San Francisco State University but couldn’t meet the demanding schedule while working full-time and parenting her own child.

“I enjoy being in a classroom and learning new skills, but I can’t do that if I’m exhausted,” she says.  

Smith eventually became director of The Community Preschool at Grace Cathedral. But she still felt incomplete without a degree, hungry for skills based on the latest research into how children learn.

Two years ago, Smith learned of a new school, EDvance College. The college had eighteen months of virtual classes she could take from home, two weeknights a week, to earn her degree. General education requirements were woven into material relevant to the classroom, and practicum hours could be completed by submitting videos from her current job. In May 2024, Smith will graduate as part of the first cohort earning their bachelor’s in early childhood education, armed with new knowledge to enrich the lives of children under her care.

“After years and years, someone created an institution that really supported the early childhood workforce,” Smith says.

EDvance is the brainchild of Lygia Stebbing, who previously ran San Francisco’s early literacy programs before incubating a program at San Francsico State to redesign early childhood degrees. As she struggled with the enormity of scaling up the initiative to a standalone college, she turned for help to a leader in the early childhood space: the Heising-Simons Foundation.

“They were just instrumental in so many different components,” says Stebbing, “investing in us as we built the curriculum and went through the accreditation process, coaching us as we set up our governance structure.”

The Heising-Simons Foundation recognizes the importance of  supporting early childhood education (ECE), a field that is in a state of crisis across the United States. Too many early education programs struggle to stay afloat and provide the nurturing, educationally rich environment children require at a crucial stage of development—something Board Chair Liz Simons knows from personal experience. A former teacher, she worked in Spanish-bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) classrooms and went on to found Stretch to Kindergarten, a spring-summer early childhood education program. The Foundation established its Education program in 2012, initially focused on supporting research around the impact of early math and pre-K programs. Since its inception, the program has provided $416 million to nearly 1,100 organizations across the United States, including $35 milllion devoted towards workforce-related issues.

“Only well-prepared and well-compensated early childhood educators and caregivers can give our youngest children the attention they need to help them feel loved and secure, and to foster their natural love of learning,” says Liz Simons. “All too often, past efforts have focused only on preparation, but not on paying our workforce a living wage, unintentionally forcing dedicated educators and caregivers, almost all women, mostly women of color, out of a profession they can’t afford to stay in. The collateral damage has also hit hundreds and thousands of mothers, now living in childcare deserts and forced out of the workforce, thus perpetuating cycles of poverty in families and communities, as well as hurting our economy.”

With time, the Foundation began to delve more into the root causes of underlying educational inequities, working to create more systemic change.

“We focus on the practitioners who are doing the frontline work,” says September Jarrett, a program officer at the Foundation, “and centering them in the policy and program changes that will help children thrive.” Now with $50 million in annual early education funding, this approach puts educators at the center, helping them get the compensation they deserve, the credentials they need, and the education they desire—all in service of providing the best possible outcomes for young children.

Pushing for Fair Compensation

"The workforce is highly unstable because it is being paid poverty wages."

Education Program Officer Rebecca Gomez

Reforming early childhood education starts with setting fair wages for workers. Preschool teachers are paid an average salary of just $11.65 an hour, less than a third of the $34.43 hourly wage elementary teachers make, and lower than 90 percent of other professions. In part that’s because early childhood programs are incredibly expensive to run, with licensing requirements mandating low teacher-student ratios (as little as 1-to-4), on top of rent, educational and play materials, food, and supplies—squeezing out better compensation.

“The workforce is highly unstable because it is being paid poverty wages,” says Rebecca Gomez, Ed.D., a program officer at the Foundation. “If you have teachers turning over, and new faces all the time, that’s stressful for everyone.”

Dr. Gomez started her career as an early educator in Philadelphia before moving into policy and research, all directed towards improving the status of the early education workforce. Now with Heising-Simons, she makes the case for federal and state funding to support childhood educators. Unlike elementary schools, which have a dedicated stream of funding from local property taxes, ECE relies on federal dollars for 60 percent of its (still insufficient) funding.

Data by Center for the Study of Childcare Employment at the University of California–Berkeley

These disparities became tangible during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many early education programs were forced to close. Given how crucial high-quality early education is, Heising-Simons helped fund groups advocating for money in funding bills during the pandemic, including $3.5 billion in block grants to states included in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, followed by $24 billion in stabilization funds to early education programs in the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Advocates came close to making such investments annually in the 2022 Build Back Better plan, but it failed to pass the U.S. Senate by one vote.

“Our grantees are still fighting for it,” says Dr. Gomez. “We want the workforce paid the professional wages they deserve.”

These efforts build upon years of work by Heising-Simons and other funders to bolster advocacy organizations that educate and lobby policymakers in Washington.

“The Foundation has been one of the key drivers—if not the key driver—in motivating other funders to focus directly on the workforce,” says Lea Austin, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE, the Center) at the University of California, Berkeley. For the past six years, Heising-Simons has been the primary funder of the center, which produces a regular childhood workforce index including both quantitative and qualitative measures capturing the difficulties ECE teachers face.

“We’re able to demonstrate that people’s lives are impacted because they are choosing to provide a critical service to their community,” Austin says.

The center has also emphasized issues of racial equity. The ECE workforce is comprised mainly by women of color, who are historically paid less than white men and women. Even within early education programs, Austin says, women of color are less likely than white women to be in leadership positions, as illustrated for example in a February 2024 report on racial inequity in ECE in California.

In addition to financial resources, Heising-Simons’ staff also provided guidance and coaching to communications staff on how best to present and disseminate the center’s findings—for example, by producing videos to explain the hidden costs of early education programs in simple terms. The work paid off in negotiations over ARPA, Austin says, in which the Center saw its language reflected in guidance from the federal government to states.

Cover of the 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index report.

States as Labs for Innovation

“Heising-Simons is not just doing things the old-school way, they are not afraid to take some risks.”

EDvance student at play.

While securing federal dollars is the top priority, Heising-Simons also makes grants to state offices of early childhood education to help them figure out how to  effectively govern their early education systems, including how to provide durable compensation for educators.

 “We’ve got to make sure they are putting in incentives for programs to pay their workforce as well,” Dr. Gomez says.

To help states think big, Heising-Simons helped create the Early Educator Investment Collaborative, a partnership of more than a half-dozen foundations that pooled money to fund innovation at the state level.

“It’s the classic example of going further together,” says Lis Stevens, senior program officer at the Bezos Family Foundation, who is now chair of the organization’s steering committee. “None of us as individual foundations could do the work that the collaborative is doing.”

The Collaborative made $9 million in recent grants to states and the District of Columbia around ways to increase compensation. Washington, DC, for example, has created a new wealth tax with funds earmarked for childcare workers, and the EEIC grant will help build out IT systems to distribute them. Louisiana has pioneered a program to match ECE funds designated by local parish government, and the EEIC grant will help scale the program. The collaborative also made grants to colleges and universities to support recruitment and retention of women of color into degree programs, to better position them for leadership.

The Collaborative’s executive director, Ola Friday, credits Heising-Simons as a driving force in the creation of the organization, with Dr. Gomez serving as co-chair for its first seven years.

“Their role has been tremendous,” Friday says. “Heising-Simons is not just doing things the old-school way. They are not afraid to take some risks.”

Students and teachers at EDvance College. Photos by: Drew Bird.

California Leading the Way

"If we can support some innovation and proof points in California, it can be the tip of the spear for other communities or national reform."

Heising-Simons is also unique among funders in its commitment to working in its home state in California—building on an already forward-looking infrastructure as an example to the rest of the country to show what’s possible.

“If we can support some innovation and proof points in California, it can be the tip of the spear for other communities or national reform,” Jarrett says.

Among the innovations the Foundation has pushed in the Golden State is a new formula for state reimbursement to compensate teachers in lower-income communities.

Heising-Simons also helped bring parents, teachers, and advocates together to create a roadmap for expansion of dual-language education in early childhood after the 2016 repeal of a statewide ban on bilingual learning. And it helped to push through a new California PK-3 credential to allow educators to teach preschool through third grade without a bachelor’s degree.

Credentialing can be controversial in early childhood education, with wildly different requirements by state. Overly strict requirements can discriminate against teachers from less advantaged backgrounds, who haven’t had the resources for higher education, even while they’ve had years of experience in the classroom. It can also create a chicken-and-egg situation where credentials lead to higher pay, but higher pay is needed to afford higher ed. Heising-Simons has taken the approach of pushing for higher compensation first, but it has also embraced the expansion of teacher education with new models such as EDvance, which caters to the needs of existing early childhood teachers, like Loren Smith, by making a program that is convenient for their busy lives.

EDvance teacher at work.

That follow-through from research to policy to impact is a hallmark of the Foundation Education program’s approach. As difficult as creating new educational policy may be, in some ways it’s the easiest part.

“There’s a saying that ‘implementation eats policy for breakfast,’” Jarrett says. If there is a new credential requirement, but it’s not convenient or affordable for teachers to obtain, it’s not much good. “We like to resource innovation, not just as the front edge of a new idea or best practice or unmet need for a community, but also to stay along for the ride through the arc of implementation.”

“I couldn’t be prouder of our work supporting our essential early childhood workforce,” Liz Simons says. “Success looks like the smile on a toddler’s face when sharing a new discovery with her caregiver, caregivers returning every day to workplaces that respect and support them, and mothers not having to choose between caring for a child and having a job outside of the home. Success looks like children and families from every zip code thriving and looking forward to what lies ahead.”