Due to a lack of teachers, nearly 1 million student spots remain unfilled across the nation as the child care crisis continues to grow amid rising inflation and challenging work conditions.
While the national K-12 teacher shortage dominates headlines, child care teachers are facing ever-increasing obstacles to enter and remain in a field that garners little attention from policymakers.
With almost a decade of experience recruiting in the child development field myself, I’ve reached out to others in the industry only to discover they too have been finding it exceptionally difficult to hire qualified teaching staff. Per a recent Wells Fargo economic report, employment in day care services sits 12.4% below pre-pandemic levels compared with 1.9% for all other occupations, substantiating what one preschool organization described as “worse than any point during the Great Recession.”
The answer to what exactly is causing the teacher shortage is multifaceted. While obstacles such as low wages and high costs to enter the field have existed for decades, the pandemic presented a new challenge as it placed child care workers in high-risk environments, unable to transition to remote learning like their K-12 counterparts. With so many of their peers stepping away from the classroom due to health concerns, teachers have spent the last two years shouldering the extra workload.
So how do we solve the crisis? While we can’t wave a magic wand and fix everything overnight, there are viable options that could dramatically improve the child care workforce, starting with expanding state and federal funding.
In 2012 the average cost of infant care in California was $11,000 a year; in 2018 it was $17,000. With annual inflation reaching nearly 8%, families are facing growing child care costs, leaving many to wonder where that money goes if not to teachers. Unfortunately for most childcare programs, increasing tuition still isn’t enough to cover the rising cost of rent, utilities and routine maintenance of the facilities.
If federal child care spending were to increase by just 2% nationally, not only would child care programs be able to afford higher teacher salaries, families would see tuition rate increases slow dramatically.
Beyond policymakers making a sudden shift in funding, lowering the barrier to entering the field that disproportionately impacts minorities, particularly women of color, would be a significant leap forward.
The first step is for states to provide tuition reimbursement for all early childhood education courses and materials.
The second step is to eliminate the high expense of teacher permits (credentials required for child care workers) which can cost anywhere between $250 and $300 to obtain and must be renewed every five years. To become an associate teacher, an entry-level position qualified to work with a small group of children, it requires a minimum of 12 college units completed over the course of two semesters. At a community college, those 12 units will cost a future educator roughly $600, not including costly books, and that number can grow by upward of $4,000 at a four-year university. To further advance their career requires additional units and either an associate or bachelor of arts degree. By eliminating what amounts to several thousand dollars in debt before ever stepping foot in a classroom, we make a career in early childhood education viable for thousands.
Finally, if the California Department of Education created early childhood education teacher residency programs, where educators can both work and develop their skills in an actual classroom, it would lead to improved program quality. This also would remove the difficult choice of having to decide between a career in teaching they love versus having to look at another industry to make ends meet.
With incremental change, we can go a long way toward addressing the teacher shortage, and nearly half a million families will be able to enroll their children in quality child care which has historically been shown to boost labor force participation and the economy overall. Now more than ever, teachers need our unrelenting support, just as they’ve been giving their unwavering support to our families and communities throughout the pandemic.
Anthony Felix is director of staffing at Catalyst Family, a nonprofit organization that operates more than 160 child care centers throughout California, serving children through age 14, with over 50 years in operation.
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