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We ask a lot of our preschool teachers: keep our children safe, help them learn how to socialize with others, ensure they are “kindergarten-ready.”
Unfortunately, while we ask a lot, we don’t treat them like the professionals they are. Preschool teachers earn an average of around $12 per hour, or less than $25,000 a year, and many do not receive benefits like health insurance.
This leaves many teachers struggling to get by. Take, for example, Monica, a preschool teacher in Seattle and a mother of two elementary school-aged children. Monica makes too much money to qualify for state child care subsidies, but she doesn’t make enough to afford the cost of care for her two children during the summer. Preschool teachers across the country find themselves in similar situations — unable to afford the care they are providing to other families.
Low wages and poor working conditions undermine the quality of early education experiences, which hinge on positive adult-child interactions. When teachers are worried about their ability to put food on the table, pay their bills or take care of a sick child, they are understandably less able to focus on the needs of the children in their care and to provide the intentional interactions so critical to child development.
The result is high turnover rates and difficulty retaining the most qualified educators. In turn, this creates instability for young children, who crave routine, and decreases the likelihood that children will reap the long-term benefits that come from attendance at a high-quality preschool staffed by experienced, highly skilled educators.
The solution seems obvious: We need to pay preschool teachers more. At least enough so that it can be a career choice that allows them to provide for their own families. But for parents currently paying hefty monthly preschool bills, that is not such an easy solution. The average tuition at private preschools is around $8,500 per year. If preschool teacher salaries and benefits were aligned with those received by kindergarten teachers, the average cost of preschool would almost double, to around $16,000 per year.
So, if preschool teachers need a raise but parents can’t afford to pay more, what is the answer?
In recent years, governors and mayors have increasingly recognized that investing in early education can pay big dividends in the future. Forty-three states and the District of Columbia now have state preschool programs, and cities including New York, Seattle, Denver and Cincinnati have local preschool initiatives.
While this progress is to be applauded, state and local preschool programs are often targeted to only the lowest-income families, and some provide support only for part-day programs. Many are underfunded and fail to address inadequate teacher compensation. The result is a highly inequitable system, where access to preschool in America today is overwhelmingly determined by your ZIP code and family income.
A realignment of spending priorities and a dramatic increase in public investment are the only ways to address the need for affordable preschool that is accessible to all families and not built on the backs of underpaid early childhood educators.
In 2017, Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott introduced the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would provide just such an investment. This bill proposes providing federal grants to states to establish and expand voluntary preschool programs that serve low-income and middle-class families. Critically, the bill would require states to pay preschool teachers salaries comparable to those of kindergarten teachers.
Bold solutions like the Child Care for Working Families Act don’t come cheap. But the research is clear on the significant long-term savings that come from investing early, and the impacts on the broader economy of a well-funded early childhood system.
It is time to prioritize the needs of littlest learners and align our public spending priorities with our values. Teachers like Monica, who have dedicated their careers to developing the future workforce, deserve it. Working families, who are struggling every day to provide for their families, deserve it. And, most importantly, the millions of young children living in America today deserve it.
Simon Workman is the associate director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress.