It’s critical to pay for early learning

My daughter is really good with little kids. She can really get them to open up. She engages with them – about who they are, what they want to do, what they could do. These are some of the qualities of a good early childhood teacher.

Child-care teaching is one of the most important professions, yet I’m glad my daughter teaches college students, not three- and four-year olds. Why? Because as an early childhood teacher, you progressively earn your way into poverty. Early childhood teachers are paid less than parking attendants. That’s not much for someone providing love, learning, and support for our greatest assets – our children.

Many of the advocates and designers of our early learning system believe we can improve the quality of early learning with a new curriculum, new facilities, new training for teachers, and a rating system for child care centers. But, they miss the one most important ingredient: Teacher salaries.

When it comes to K-12 education, we can all agree that the most important catalyst for learning is the teacher. But K-12 teachers are underpaid, starting at $33,000 and topping out with a PhD and 16 plus years of teaching at $63,000. Now apply that same equation to early learning. Believe it or not, the typical child-care teacher earns $11 an hour. Assistants earn $9.50. That is just 31 cents above the minimum wage. Why would a college counselor responsibly encourage any student to pursue early learning as a career? A full-time assistant, working 52 weeks a year, can expect an annual income of less than $20,000. A child care teacher can expect less than $23,000! And she can forget about health insurance, paid sick days, or any retirement savings plan.

Over the past decade, even as early learning has become the focus of business elites and policy makers, this compensation has gotten worse. Just since 2010, compensation has fallen over $1,000 for child care assistants, over $250 for teachers, and over $200 for supervisors. Is it any wonder that two out of every five assistants quit every year, as do 20 percent of teachers?

By the time a child starts kindergarten, she will have experienced an entire staffing change in the teachers who have taught and cared for her. Turnover, poor compensation, and no career pathways all but ensure the vast majority of kids in child care are missing out on learning, developing self-confidence, and being ready for kindergarten.

The good news is that we have a remedy for this in state law, right now! In 2005 the Legislature approved the child-care career and wage ladder. The legislation, sponsored by Reps. Ruth Kagi (D-Shoreline), Mary Helen Roberts (D- Edmonds), and now Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline), created a wage ladder with increments for experience, responsibility, and education. The child-care centers paid the wage increments for experience and responsibility, and the state paid for the wage increments for education. The Legislature then funded the wage ladder at $1.5 million a year, which enabled about 1,000 child care teachers to receive slightly better compensation for their education. The results were terrific — everything an early learning advocate or parent would want. Teachers went back to community college, their self-esteem went up, as did their morale at work. As teachers gained educational credits, their wages went up by 25 cents to 50 cents an hour. The quality of their care and teaching improved and the children in their care thrived. A win all around.

But the funding only covered 10 percent of child care centers that wanted to participate. So rather than finding the funding for a successful program, they killed it during the recession, and has not yet brought it back. Instead we have a lot of rhetoric in support of early learning and even more legislatively-mandated studies and reports. All the time the workers come last, as do the kids in their care.

And yet, these workers are the people who can either lead our children in high quality child care and early learning, or can be demoralized, patronized, worked cheap, and leave their poverty-producing job in child care to the next temporary employee.

The choice is pretty stark. Luckily, the Legislature gets the chance to do what it didn’t do in the regular session, starting over again in the special session next week. Let’s hope they keep in mind the guardians of high quality child care — our youngest children’s teachers and caregivers — and re-fund the child care wage and career ladder.

John Burbank is the Executive Director of the Economic Opportunity Institute ( He can be reached via email at

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