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Despite Minimum Wage Hikes, ECE Wages Stay Low

A new workforce index from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment finds that wages for child care workers have slightly increased over the past two years, but the average worker still makes only slightly more than $10 an hour, the equivalent of $22,290 annually.

Preschool teachers actually saw their wages decrease over the past two years by 1.4 percent, bringing their average hourly pay to just under $14 an hour, about $29,000 a year. Figure 1.1 below illustrates how far early educators still have to go in order to reach parity with the median hourly wages earned by kindergarten teachers. While one of the goals of early care and education (ECE) is to benefit children from low-income families, the report finds that “many of these same efforts continue to generate poverty in the early care and education workforce, who are predominantly female, ethnically and racially diverse, and often have children of their own.” Women of color make up about 40 percent of the ECE workforce, while about 80 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce is white.


The fact that child care workers saw a boost in pay from 2015 to 2017 is mostly due to states that raised their minimum wage during that time span. Those states were more likely to have higher average pay for child care workers compared to states that kept their minimum wage unchanged. In fact, states that enacted minimum wage increases saw an average increase of about six percent in child care worker wages compared to an increase of less than one percent in states with no wage increase.

The report also found a significant wage penalty for educators working with infants and toddlers compared to teachers of children aged three to five. This infant/toddler penalty can be summarized by the phrase, “The younger the child, the lower the pay.” Specifically, infant/toddler teachers without a college degree earn about $1 less per hour compared to their peers teaching preschool-aged children, while infant/toddler teachers with a bachelor’s degree earn about $4 less per hour compared to teachers with the same degree who teach slightly older children. While 67 percent of teachers working with preschool-aged children earn less than $15 an hour, that jumps to 86 percent of infant/toddler teachers. The infant/toddler penalty hits African Americans particularly hard because they’re more likely than their peers to teach infants and toddlers.

Amid calls for a greater number of early educators with bachelor’s degrees, the report finds that early educators with such a degree can expect to earn more. Educators who work at school-sponsored pre-K programs and have no degree can expect to earn about $8 more per hour after earning a bachelor’s degree. And Head Start teachers who earn a bachelor’s degree can expect to see their wage increase by about $4 per hour. While early educators with bachelor’s degree generally earn a higher wage, Figure 3.6 below finds that they still lag far behind in pay compared to other educators with the same degree. The report notes that “it should not be surprising that that the relatively small wage increase for a four-year college degree… drives many incumbent early educators out of the field in search of jobs that offer a higher return on their educational investment.”


The report’s release comes two years since CSCCE released its first workforce index. The updated index focuses on tracking progress made in individual states over the last two years and finds notable, but uneven progress has been made in improving the education and training of the workforce. Five essential elements of public policy within early childhood are identified in the report: compensation, workforce data, qualifications, financial resources, and work environments. As Figure 1.3 below illustrates, only in the policy area of workforce data are a majority of states deemed to be “making headway.”

Included in the report are a number of policy recommendations for bringing about increased compensation and supportive work environments for early educators. Many of the recommendations come back to a single, but important point: for significant progress to be made, it’s necessary that ECE be viewed and funded as a public good in the way K-12 education currently is.

This same point was emphasized in a recent consensus report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine that called for a new national financing structure for ECE. The Academies report estimates such a system would cost about $140 billion year, significantly more than the combined $29 billion in federal and state funding currently dedicated to early care and education. The $140 billion price tag includes the cost of a wide range of improvements to the early care and education system, such as significantly higher levels of educator pay, paid release time for professional development, and investments in textbooks and scholarships for educators taking higher education courses. The CSCCE report notes that any efforts to transform the workforce through increased education and training must be linked to policies that directly address teachers’ economic well-being.