The Importance of Equal Pay Between Pre-K and K-3rd Teachers

While requiring pre-K teachers to have college degrees is intended to improve learning, it can also backfire, by leading to higher turnover rates and an unstable workforce.

According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), more than half of all state-funded pre-K programs now require lead teachers to possess bachelor’s degrees. While requiring pre-K teachers to have college degrees is intended to improve learning, it can also backfire. When teachers are required to have the same education as kindergarten teachers, but are not provided equal pay and benefits (pre-K teachers in school-sponsored settings with a bachelor’s degree earn on average 80 percent of the compensation kindergarten teachers receive), many may leave their position. This leads to higher turnover rates of pre-K teachers and an unstable workforce.

One solution is to promote compensation parity between pre-K teachers and their K-3rd grade counterparts, according to a recent brief and report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) and NIEER. The twin publications examine the compensation policies of all 44 states that currently operate state-funded pre-K programs.

In the brief, authors make clear that compensation parity between pre-K teachers and K-3 teachers is more than just equivalent salary. They argue full compensation parity requires three thing:

  • Parity between salary schedules (or differentiated salaries based on qualifications and years of experience)

  • Benefit parity (equivalent paid time off and health/retirement benefits), and

  • Parity in payment for professional responsibilities, such as time for planning and professional development.

Because very few states have explicit policies that include all these components of compensation, CSCCE and NIEER conducted detailed examinations of states that at least have salary parity policies. They found that parity policies for pre-K teachers vary widely across and within states. Fourteen states have salary parity policies in place that require the same starting salary and salary schedule as K-3 teachers.

Only four states (New Jersey, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and West Virginia) offer full compensation parity for lead pre-K teachers (participating in a state public pre-K program) in public and private settings. The effect of a lack of parity between settings can be seen in the mixed reaction to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement last month that the city will strive to offer universal pre-K to all three-year-olds in addition to four-year-olds who already have access. While this comes as good news for many parents and children, some directors of private child care centers expressed worry that they will lose teachers to the expanded public pre-K since New York City’s education department offers higher salaries to pre-K teachers than most private centers can.

In order to achieve parity between pre-K teachers and their K-3 peers, the authors write that advocates must educate others on what compensation parity is and why it’s important. Additionally, the authors suggest that stakeholders gather data on current disparities among pre-K and K-3 educators in an effort to bring attention to the gaps in compensation parity and how such gaps can undermine program quality.

Parity compensation for pre-K teachers can benefit states in ways besides reducing turnover rates. The authors found that states that report having a salary parity policy are more likely to have higher pre-K teacher wages, score higher on other measures of NIEER’s pre-K quality, and have higher child enrollment in pre-K. But even more broadly, parity among pre-K teachers can contribute to a stable workforce, leading to higher quality care and instruction.

More on how to improve early education workforce can be found on our Thriving Workforce, Thriving Early Learners series here.

Author:

Anna Sillers was an intern with New America's Early and Elementary Education department.