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NC early educators are seven times more likely to live in poverty than K-8 teachers, report finds

Davina Boldin-Woods, director of Excel Christian Academy, a child care center in Burlington, recalls one of her favorite employees: a teacher who came to her center with only a high school diploma. With Boldin-Woods’ encouragement, the teacher went back to school while working to earn her associate degree, then her bachelor’s degree.

“She got a four-year degree in December, and by January she had a position at a high school,” Boldin-Woods said.

Boldin-Woods didn’t blame her. Though she offers her teachers as much as she can, many on her staff receive public assistance. She can’t compete with the compensation and benefits a public school district can offer. “That is the story that is told across the state,” she said.

In North Carolina, early educators with a bachelor’s degree are paid 28.8% less on average than their colleagues in the K-8 system, according to a new national report — the 2020 Early Childhood Workforce Index — from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. The poverty rate for early educators in North Carolina is 17.6%, compared with 10.6% of North Carolina workers in general and 2.4% of K-8 teachers.

“We can continue to encourage educating our workforce, but we have nothing to provide for them to hold on to,” Boldin-Woods said. “That teacher alone, for the over eight years that she was working for me, she received subsidized child care, Section 8 housing, and she received food stamps.”

The report breaks down early educator compensation by age range, showing differences in pay across early childhood settings. North Carolina’s profile shows 2019 median wages for child care workers at $10.62 (compared with $11.65 nationally), for preschool teachers at $12.83 ($14.67 nationally), and for kindergarten teachers at $27.89 ($32.80 nationally).

“We want people to see this as a wake-up call,” said Caitlin McLean, senior research specialist at the center and lead author of the report. Though most of the report’s analysis relies on information from before the pandemic, McLean said the pandemic adds urgency to improving the supports that states offer to teachers of the youngest children.

“I do think there is a moment in time now where people are really recognizing that this can’t go on, that we actually need direct public investment in the system and recognizing that we can’t keep treating it like just a private system parents are expected to shoulder the burden for,” she said. “If we want to make sure all children have access to early education that they need and deserve, we have to invest in it the way we do K-12 education.”

‘Edging forward’

The index labels states as “stalled,” “edging forward,” or “making headway” across workforce policies. North Carolina was labeled as “edging forward” on teacher qualifications, work environments, compensation and financial relief, and financial resources. In one category, workforce data, the state received a “making headway” label.

In North Carolina, the minimum requirement for early educators is one community college course, yet certain funding streams require higher education levels. NC Pre-K, the state’s targeted public preschool for vulnerable 4-year-olds, requires lead teachers to have bachelor’s degrees. The state’s quality rating system, which affects the public resources a child care facility can receive, factors in teachers’ education level.

Many providers, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, are struggling to retain teachers doing risky work. Nationwide, the workforce has shrunk by 25% since the start of the pandemic, the report says.

McLean pointed to the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood North Carolina Scholarship Program as a promising practice. Developed in North Carolina by the Child Care Services Association (CCSA) but active in 24 other states, the program funds education for early educators in the field returning to school. It also requires a commitment to stay in the early education field for at least one year afterward.

Other services from the same organization support early educators in other ways. The Child Care WAGE$ program provides wage supplements depending on education level and requires teachers to stay at the same program while receiving the supplements. “WAGE$ is designed to provide preschool children more stable relationships with better-educated teachers by rewarding teacher education and continuity of care,” the program’s website reads.

Out of 37,000 early educators in the state, according to the CSCCE report, the T.E.A.C.H. scholarships reached 2,405 individuals from 2019-20. These programs receive funds from the state Division of Child Development and Early Education.

CCSA President Marsha Basloe said she’s proud of what the programs have done in terms of education levels and retention in the workforce. In CCSA’s 2019 study of the workforce, 62% of center-based teaching staff had at least an associate degree in any field. Yet more resources are needed, she said, both to scale these strategies up and to build an early educator pipeline for the future.

“The only way to recruit the pipeline is to say to people in high school, ‘If you want to be an early childhood teacher, you can make a living,’ as opposed to, ‘You want to be an early childhood teacher? You’re going to live in poverty the rest of your life,'” Basloe said. “We’ve got to change our messaging, and the only way to do that is to change our policies and to look at our financing strategies.”

A need for redesign

Workforce issues point to an unsustainable business model for private child care, the report says, that parents can’t afford, that teachers and directors can’t make a living from, and that many children can’t access.

“The entire market-based early care and education system is profoundly flawed and needs to be redesigned,” reads the report’s introduction to its policy recommendations.

This is particularly true of educators in the infant/toddler range, the report says, who have not seen the kinds of investment that states have directed toward early education for preschool-age children.

“It’s great that there’s been this attention paid to pre-K services, but we really need to expand that across the 0-5 age range, or else we’re just perpetuating disparities for children in that age and for the workforce that’s caring for and educating them,” McLean said.

The report links the historic undervaluing of early care and education directly to systemic racism, and finds a racial wage gap in the field. Nationally, Black early educators are paid $0.78 less than their white colleagues after controlling for education level. The report says:

Continuing to pay early educators poverty-level wages out of an expectation that women, especially women of color, will continue to do this work for (almost) free — either out of love for children or because they have few other options — perpetuates sexism, racism, and classism in the United States.

McLean added that Black and LatinX communities have also been hit the hardest by the pandemic, a period in which many early educators kept caring for children of essential workers and, later, school-age remote learners.

The report recommends several policies to strengthen the workforce, such as aligning teacher qualifications with national standards, ensuring teachers have paid planning and professional development opportunities, and increasing compensation across settings.

“We have to understand that this is actually essential to a modern economy,” McLean said. “And that, on the child side, this is education, it’s about their development. And we need to expect that we’re going to have to invest in it.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.