Efforts in California and other states to raise the quality of child care and preschool programs are being undermined by the low wages that workers earn in jobs that now require more skills and education, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education released Tuesday.
In California, preschool teachers were paid an average salary of $31,720 in 2015, about half of what California kindergarten teachers earned that year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the report said.
The report, “High Quality Early Learning Settings Depend on a High-Quality Workforce,” comes as several states, including California, are putting much greater emphasis on improving education programs for young children as studies have shown that the first five years – particularly the first three years – are critical to a child’s brain development and the potential for future learning.
Thousands of private and state-operated preschools in California are being rated annually in a Quality Rating and Improvement System that puts an emphasis on continuous improvement, such as the quality of teacher-student interactions and higher-education credits and degrees.
But those improvements are difficult to achieve because wages are not high enough to hire the most qualified workers, especially in California, where the average living wage for a family with one working adult and two children is $28 an hour, or nearly $60,000 a year.
“Undervaluing the nation’s early childhood educators flies in the face of what we know about brain development and the optimal time for learning,” said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. in a statement. “Educating children before kindergarten requires significant knowledge, expertise, and skill – especially in light of the critical importance of the early years for children’s growth, development and future academic and life success,” King added, saying “This report is a call to action for all of us.”
Early learning advocates in California have been pushing for several years to increase funding for early childhood education programs and last week secured a budget compromise in the state Legislature that calls for an additional half-billion-dollar boost in funding over four years – including higher wages as a result of legislation signed by Gov. Jerry Brown earlier this year that would raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour in the coming years.
The additional funding will allow the state to add nearly 9,000 preschool slots over the next four years. It is not yet clear how much preschool teachers’ pay will increase.
“A growing chorus of voices are saying this is a problem we have to solve,” said Marcy Whitebook, director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at UC Berkeley. “We’re delighted the case has been made,” she said, “but now we need to move from where we are to where we need to go.”
Whitebook said 46 percent of child care workers in California are receiving money from at least one government support program, such as food stamps or subsidized health care.
The potential to raise the quality of early learning programs exists in California, Whitebook said, “but it’s also about the environment where the teachers are working and how much they are paid. There’s been this idea that finances don’t apply to people who do this work. They worry about paying for transportation to work. They worry about having enough sick days.”
Nationwide, 97 percent of early education teachers are women, the federal report said. Its release coincided with the United State of Women Summit in Washington on Tuesday, which touted the achievements of women in education, health, leadership and business.
The report found that while education and training requirements have increased for early education teachers, workforce pay has not. The national median annual wage for preschool teachers is $28,570, about half of what kindergarten teachers earn, and the report found that early education teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn less than half of the annual earnings of all U.S. workers with a bachelor’s degree.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party’s nominee for president this election year, has said she would make preschool available to all 4-year-olds within 10 years, although she hasn’t provided details about how it would be funded. Clinton also has said she would work to boost pay for child care workers and preschool teachers and limit child care costs to 10 percent of a family’s annual income.