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Opinion: Why aren’t we paying our early childhood educators what they deserve?

April 20, 2021 Category: FeaturedMediumPurpose


This guest column was written by Kathy McHale, president and CEO of SPIN, a nonprofit that provides services to people with autism and intellectual/developmental disability.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone from restaurant workers to retail workers saw their industry adapt to the sudden business restrictions designed to keep people at home and safe.

Ensuring that students had the resources to access ongoing high-quality education was no less than a herculean effort made across the nation. Early childhood and early Intervention educators were at the heart of this effort. From the virtual classroom to those who stepped back into school buildings to instruct children, our educators kept the wheels turning in our society.

Studies have found that the early years of a child’s life are crucial for their development, and children that fall behind in these years often never catch back up, leaving them prone to underachievement and dropping out. Research by Duke University, published in November 2020, found significant long term gains in children who were educated in high quality preschool programs.

With over 40 years of experience in the field of intellectual, developmental and autism disabilities and early childhood education in support of children with and without disabilities, I have seen firsthand how critical these years are. Our young students are learning the building blocks for a lifetime of learning and developing — and that starts with our early childhood educators who put the pieces together.

So if early childhood educators are critical to keeping our economy moving, and ensuring that our young ones are getting a strong start, why is government’s investment in early childhood programs so low that we do not have the resources to pay these teachers better?

In 2019, a report from the U.S. Department of Education found that the national median annual wage for preschool teachers in the U.S. is $28,570 with women making up 97% of early childhood educators.

Our early childhood educators do not receive the investment they need to continue in this career of teaching our children fundamental skills for healthy brain development they need throughout life. That same report found that while the workforce training and education requirements necessary to become an early childhood educator have increased — the pay has not, leaving many educators saddled with college debt and in a career they may love but have to leave due to financial constraints.

From our Partners

We are undervaluing the work that is vital to the long term success of our children and society.

We are undervaluing the work that is vital to the long term success of our children and society, but many early childhood educators, who are passionate about the work, must leave due to disinvestments and underfunding.

Our elected officials must consider early childhood education and educator compensation crucial when thinking about education funding. It has been historically left out of the conversation in this country due to myths and assumptions that early childhood education is not as important as K-12 education or that it is a form of daycare.

These myths must be dispelled in order to invest properly in early childhood and children with disabilities, otherwise, we will continue to see difficulty retaining talented and motivated teachers who dedicate their lives to our children.

New York City recently changed this trend by investing $57 million to bring preschool teacher pay up to K-12 levels for publicly funded, privately run PreK programs. Other cities are coming to the realization that we have to invest in our educators, and Philadelphia must think creatively and do the same.

The pandemic has taken an even larger toll on these educators as many of them were forced to leave their positions to care for their own children.

To reopen early childhood and early intervention programs, we need to be able to recruit and retain qualified teachers. Everything tells us this will not happen until we have the resources we need to pay them on a par with K-12 teachers. As parents clamber for their children to return to preschool, help is needed.

Early childhood educators, and educators for children with disabilities have had a new and challenging task beyond adapting to the stay-home, and stay-safe protocol. With some back in the classroom with children and some fighting to keep the attention of their students via Zoom — it’s a never-ending struggle to try to replicate what education used to look like in years past.

Many of the most critical years of our students’ life are early in their academic career, and we owe it to the educators adapting their entire teaching style so that our kids can learn. We owe them thanks, but we need to pay them what they deserve to be paid so that they can continue on in this ever important field with the knowledge that society values them and knows just how important their job is.

It is time for Pennsylvania and Philadelphia to invest in teachers by increasing the per child rate provided to the organizations who are educating our young children.

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