TOPICS > Education > Making the Grade

Why are early childhood educators struggling to make ends meet?

August 16, 2016 at 6:20 PM EDT
Science tells us that critical brain development in children begins well before kindergarten, so their care and education prior to starting school matter. But the very foundation of effective early education -- child care providers -- often struggle to earn a living wage. In fact, nearly half of these teachers require some sort of federal support to make ends meet. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now a look at how pre-K teachers and early child care workers struggle to make ends meet, earning little better than subsistence wages, even as parents and the Obama administration say they increasingly value what they do.

It’s part of our weekly education series Making the Grade, produced this week in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

CHANEE WILSON, Teacher, Booth Memorial Child Development Center: OK. What color is this?


CHANEE WILSON: Yellow and white.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Chanee Wilson teaches at the Salvation Army’s Child Development Center in Oakland, California. This year, the center received a top quality rating from the state.

CHERYL MURRAY, Program Director, Booth Memorial Child Development Center: Our teachers are doing a really good job. They’re not just baby-sitting. They’re actually teaching.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But program director Cheryl Murray says, despite the high rating, she is not able to pay her teachers a livable wage.

CHERYL MURRAY: We’re unable. If we pay them more, then we wouldn’t be able to serve the families, and the families really need the service. I wish I could hit the lottery and pay more for them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The center serves low-income families and gets 80 percent of its funding from state subsidies. Families pay on a sliding scale based on their income, and teachers are paid minimum wage or slightly higher.

One issue is staffing. Because they have younger children, child care classes require more teachers than kindergarten. Chanee Wilson lives in Section 8 subsidized housing with her two children and receives a small amount of money in food stamps. She makes $13.25 an hour.

CHANEE WILSON: It’s a struggle every month paycheck to paycheck. You have kids and you have bills. We more focus on the needs, which is like providing the roof over their heads, the clothes, then the food, and things like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Her problem is a common one. Labor experts say child care workers all over the country fail to earn a livable wage.

MARCY WHITEBOOK, Director, Center for the Study of Child Care Employment: Early childhood jobs are amongst the lowest jobs across any occupation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Marcy Whitebook is the director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley.

MARCY WHITEBOOK: Forty-six percent of child care workers are relying on some type of federal income support. The wages are so low that somebody working full-time isn’t making a living wage, and what that means is that in order to meet the needs of their families, they need to get assistance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Wilson has her associate’s degree in early childhood education and is attending weekend and night classes to earn her bachelor’s degree. But even with a bachelor’s degree, Wilson’s salary will still hover around the minimum wage, like lead teacher Laronda Rainey (ph), who earns $12.55 an hour. To make ends meet, Rainey, who has a bachelor’s degree, works as a security guard at night.

CHERYL MURRAY: I think most of our teachers here really teach from the heart, because, if their heart is not in it, they wouldn’t be here, because of the wages.

MARCY WHITEBOOK: College graduates who majored in early childhood have the distinction of having the lowest lifetime earnings compared to any other degree. That’s hardly a recruitment and retention strategy.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In fact, Whitebook says fewer and fewer colleges offer early education degrees because students say they can’t make a living with them.

At Blue Skies for Children, another high-quality preschool in Oakland, co-director Claire Bainer can’t find the skilled teachers the program strives to recruit.

CLAIRE BAINER, Co-Director, Blue Skies for Children: It’s very difficult. This year, especially with the economy up, people can get jobs, even with our high minimum wage, flipping burgers, and working the parking lot attendants and things like that pay the same, and much easier work.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Teachers here are paid more, but Bainer says, on top of a bachelor’s degree, she wants them to have extensive training in early education, and be good critical thinkers.

CLAIRE BAINER: Children are learning to talk and learning to negotiate. So, it’s very important to have an articulate, smart teacher who knows how to help the children develop those skills.

HARI SREENIVASAN: As a result, the school, which operates on parent fees and fund-raising, will increase their tuition this fall.

CLAIRE BAINER: We can’t hire anybody at the amount that we’re paying the teachers, so we have to do a fee increase. That only translates to parents paying more. Poor parents. It’s terrible. It’s a lot of money.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute reported infant care in 33 states costs more than in-state college tuition and care for 4-year-olds exceeds college tuition in 24 states. At the same time, early educators say preschool is increasingly valued, and point to new science about critical brain development occurring well before kindergarten.

MARCY WHITEBOOK: The care and education of young children before kindergarten is just as complex as teaching children who are older. But we haven’t restructured our system and invested the public dollars that it will take.

HARI SREENIVASAN: For her part, program director Cheryl Murray wants her staff to be compensated equal to what public school teachers earn.

CHERYL MURRAY: I believe they should be paid as well as secondary teachers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Even some conservative think tanks are exploring the idea of expanding public funds for early education.

Katharine Stevens heads the American Enterprise Institute’s newly launched early-childhood program.

KATHARINE STEVENS, American Enterprise Institute: If we approach this in a smart, efficient way, what we will be able to accomplish is getting the neediest kids off to a good start.

If kids are arriving in kindergarten better prepared, ultimately, our K-12 system will cost less. We will be reducing special ed costs. We will be reducing grade retention costs. However, throwing money at this problem is not going to assure us of that kind of result.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Stevens cautions that new pre-K programs shouldn’t repeat the mistakes of schooling for older children.

KATHARINE STEVENS: It would be a really big mistake to scale up huge new public spending programs without any idea about whether or not those are going to be effective, because it’s going to be very difficult to roll that back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Recently, the Obama administration proposed investing $82 billion to expand child care to working families and help providers hire, train, and retain a highly qualified work force.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Hari Sreenivasan.