OPINION: A hopeful note for early childhood education in 2024 — Some states are stepping up investment – The Hechinger Report

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Millions of families may now face a lack of child care following the recent expiration of pandemic-era federal funding.

The child care “stabilization” funds included in the American Rescue Plan Act were just that — emergency funding to stabilize the sector amid a pandemic.

As vital as that funding was, it was insufficient to address the many systemic problems impacting early childhood education and its workforce, including inequitable wages.

Wages for early childhood workers already lag far behind those of their K-8 colleagues who have similar credentials. These workers, disproportionately Black, Latina and indigenous, face poverty rates an average of 7.7 times higher than other teachers.

This financial condition perpetuates economic inequality and reflects systemic racism, with early childhood education programs continuing to be subsidized through the long hours that Black, Latina and indigenous women work for unjust wages and limited benefits.

Related: Early education coalition searches for answers to raise teacher pay, even as budgets are cratering

This inequity and the end of the crucial pandemic-era federal lifeline for early childhood educators will negatively impact families and workers, The Century Foundation estimates. Some 70,000 child care programs are likely to close; millions of families will struggle to get access to child care; 232,000 jobs could soon be lost; and states will lose $10.6 billion in tax and business revenue every year.

There is one bright note: State and local governments are offering models of innovation and glimmers of hope in the face of such a dire challenge.

In late 2022, New Mexico became the first state in the nation to create a permanent child care fund, making child care free or affordable for many families and increasing early educator wages.

State and local governments are offering models of innovation and glimmers of hope.

Washington, D.C., recently established the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund, which aims to achieve pay parity between early childhood educators and their K-12 counterparts. Since 2022, almost $70 million has been distributed to nearly 3,000 early childhood educators. The district is also expanding health insurance for early childhood educators.

In Louisiana, a coalition of state and local government partners is working with a nonprofit to test the impact of projects that increase child care workers’ wages in key communities; if positive, they intend to scale the programs across the state.

Minnesota last year signed into law the Great Start Compensation Support Payment Program to fill the gap following the ending of the federal child care stabilization grants. The program will provide $316 million this fiscal year, and $260 million every two years ongoing, to directly increase child care workers’ pay.

These solutions are critical, because it is our nation’s youngest students who will ultimately suffer the consequences of high teacher turnover and an unstable learning environment at a key time in their development.

Early childhood education directly impacts their future learning outcomes and lifelong success; it deserves our attention and investment.

Building on these efforts, the Early Educator Investment Collaborative — a group of funders that has come together to accelerate progress in the early childhood education profession — recently announced grants for state and local partnerships in Colorado, Louisiana and Washington, D.C.

These grants will bolster innovative approaches to increasing early childhood education workforce pay, including the creation of dedicated revenue streams and pilot demonstration projects to evaluate the impacts of salary increases.

They will also promote greater collaboration between agencies to improve workforce compensation — aimed at increasing the capacity of financial and data systems to support long-term wage and benefits increases.

Related: OPINION: School district leaders must make early education a priority, so children enter school prepared

I’m excited for the solutions these grants will amplify and hope they can provide useful models and encouragement for other states to explore ways to better compensate early childhood educators.

But we also need state and federal legislators to step up for their constituents on this issue. It’s critical for legislators to reflect the majority of voters’ interest in early childhood education reform by increasing investment, enacting legislation to boost compensation and advocating for broader support of early childhood educators.

Philanthropy also has a big role to play. By supporting governments with the funding needed to explore unique solutions, philanthropic organizations can help find what works, scale successful models and support sustainable change.

Along with boosting the rallying cry for increased federal investment in early childhood education and its workers, this moment is an opportunity for states, communities and philanthropists to find truly long-term solutions to fully support early childhood education workers and the families they serve.

Ola J. Friday is the director of the Early Educator Investment Collaborative.

This story about early childhood educator pay was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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