Options Exist for Addressing ECE's Education-Compensation Dilemma

Blog Post
Dec. 11, 2018

To facilitate interaction among ideas presented in Moving Beyond False Choices for Early Childhood Educators, Series Editor Stacie G. Goffin offers opening comments. For readers new to the Series, her introduction explains the series' intent.

Center director Phil Acord, like Anna Mercer-McLean, brings the perspective of an administrator who confronts the operational challenges of ECE's thorny knot on a daily basis. He contends the most pressing issue for child care administrators is recruiting credentialed and degreed teaching staff and compensating them appropriately while still maintaining affordable fees for the low-income families being served. As an advocate for credentialed and degreed early childhood educators, he argues that options exist for addressing this conundrum without sacrificing the opportunity to advance ECE as a field of practice.

Currently, child care administrators’ most pressing issue is the ability to hire and retain qualified teaching staff. The issue is even more pronounced for those of us operating programs serving low-income families. Maintaining a high-quality program and compensating educators at a livable wage while also keeping fees affordable for the families we serve often feels like an impossible task. While an issue that has plagued directors for decades, it’s become even harder to navigate in today’s economy. Yet steps for remediating this seemingly intractable issue are available. We just need to recognize them and become more focused and intentional in maximizing their potential.

Because of efforts being put forth to legitimize early childhood education (ECE) by structuring it as a profession with credential (CDA) and degree (AA, BA/BS or higher) requirements, however, this issue is undergoing a shift in terms of its complexity. No longer is it primarily a matter of competing with low-wage service jobs. Now the challenge revolves around recruiting and hiring qualified staff to meet credential/degree requirements. Despite the added challenge this shift creates, though, I support it because it is the only path to becoming a recognized profession. But if we are going to professionalize the early education industry, two action steps need to be prioritized: (1) requiring all teaching staff to have credentials/degrees and (2) paying them a wage commensurate with their education and experience.

Child care center programs such as mine, though, have to compete with public education and the business world when seeking to hire the most capable and qualified people possible. I recently attended a workshop where it was reported that the early education industry is comprised of about 2 million workers. To compensate all of these individuals at a livable wage, much less professional wages, would cost about $60 billion annually, and obviously the burden of financing the ECE system can’t be placed on the backs of families or classroom teachers.

So, where can the needed funding sources be found?

Despite ECE’s tendency to wring its hands and question the probability of ever effectively responding to this longstanding challenge, options are available to help us break new ground. I’m confident that the first step exists in the $5.8 billion that Congress recently approved and is distributing to states through the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG). These funds have the potential to advance ECE toward becoming professionalized if states allocate a majority of their CCDBG funding to their state’s certificate/voucher programs. These funds would then give programs needed revenue for increasing teacher wages and benefits. For this tactic to succeed, though, the state’s reimbursement rate has to be based on a current market rate survey that reflects the true cost of care. Additionally, eligibility guidelines have to be high enough to include the families that populate the majority of ECE programs.

A second funding source for increasing teacher salaries is through collaborations and partnerships. The Early Head Start Child Care Partnership program, for example, has injected a new source of funds into the early education community. It requires program partners to have staff with credentials/degrees and increases compensation accordingly.

Still another option are the TEACH® and WAGE$® programs. These two programs provide great examples of what can be done nationwide to encourage teachers to obtain credentials/degrees, while providing increased wages for those who continue teaching in early education programs following their degree attainment. Presently, about 22 states have a TEACH® program although fewer also have the WAGE$® program. A major, national advocacy effort on the part of early education advocates could generate great results in this regard! In my town of Chattanooga, for example, Mayor Andy Berke has put in place a WAGE$® program.

Even with these opportunities, though, states are going to have to step up to the plate too, and invest in ECE. Still, we need not wait until then to tackle the challenge of acquiring better-qualified and fairly compensated teaching staff.

The ECE industry is at a milestone moment in its evolution. Three forces are at work, each of which is moving us in the right direction: NAEYC’s Power to the Profession initiative, Head Start’s credential requirements, and the CCDBG monies all focus on quality and increased credential/degree requirements. Even though the booming economy is making it more difficult to hire qualified staff, rather than being discouraged, this reality should be used to motivate us towards increased credential requirements for teaching staff and advocacy for the funding needed to compensate our workforce in a way commensurate with their education and job responsibilities.

The touchstone of quality early education programs is a high-quality teacher in every classroom, starting with our infants. The best way to ensure teacher quality is through credentials and degrees. Consequently, this needs to be where our time, energy, and money are focused. Since ultimately this will lead to better outcomes for children, we really have no other choice.