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North Carolina below national median wage for early childhood educators

After spending more than 25 years as an early childhood educator in North Carolina, Paula Gales will teach kindergarten in the fall. The switch, Gales said, is due to low wages for those that teach the state’s youngest children.

“With my masters degree in education, I will make at least $8,000 to $10,000 more than I did as an early childhood educator just by teaching one age group higher,” Gales said. “That is something to think about.”

A national report released Wednesday by the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California at Berkeley shows North Carolina’s median wage for preschool teachers across settings at $12.44 compared to the national preschool teacher median wage at $13.94. For North Carolina’s child care workers across settings, the median wage falls below the national median as well: $9.86 compared to the national median of $10.72. The same trend exists with preschool directors; North Carolina’s median wage is $20.97 compared to the national median at $22.54.

Authors of the biennial Early Childhood Workforce Index, which was first released in 2016, are calling for systemwide changes in the way states treat early childhood educators.

“While there is scientific consensus that early childhood education is central to shaping children’s lifelong knowledge and skills, the index documents that policies in the 50 states, and the District of Columbia, fall short on a number of measurable indicators, which include earnings and economic security, early childhood workforce policies, and family and income support policies,” said Caitlin McLean, a workforce specialist at Berkeley and index co-author.  

The index tracks states’ early childhood workforce quality and notes changes in compensation in the last two years. 

From 2015 to 2017, North Carolina’s median wage for preschool or child care center directors decreased by 5 percent and the state’s median wage for preschool teachers decreased by 3 percent. The state’s median wage for child care workers has increased by 1 percent from 2015 to 2017.

At the same time, North Carolina was one of only seven states to receive an “edging forward” status when it comes to compensation and financial relief. State-by-state indicators were ranked as “stalled,” “edging forward,” or “making headway.” This indicator was based off the existence of policies like stipends for teachers who further their education, required salary parity with K-12 teachers, and plans or guidelines for paying early childhood educators outside of public preschool programs.

When it comes to work environments for early childhood educators, North Carolina was placed in the “stalled” category with 24 other states. The report’s reasoning includes a lack of paid time for professional development and for preparation or planning. 

North Carolina also received an “edging forward,” along with 33 other states, for the strength of its educational qualifications and pathways for higher attainment for early childhood educators. North Carolina requires lead pre-K teachers to have at least a bachelors degree but does not require the same from assistant pre-K teachers or educators at other center-based or home-based settings.

The report’s authors noted North Carolina as a leader in data collection across its early education system. The report categorizes the state has “making headway” along with 28 other states. 

“North Carolina, in particular, tends to be a leader in terms of collecting good data on the workforce,” McLean said. “There are surveys that are done almost every year and there’s also a workforce registry as well. And this is really crucial, because what we’re finding in many states is that stakeholders are unable to answer basic questions about their workforce which means that policymakers don’t have any information to go on.”

The report’s findings point to national workforce inequities. In a comparatively racially diverse workforce, where 40 percent of early childhood workers are people of color compared to about 20 percent of K-12 employees, African-American workers are paid an average of 78 cents less per hour than their white colleagues when controlling for educational attainment. That disparity translates to $1,622.40 less per year.

Low wages that plague the entire system, the report states, disproportionately effect teachers who work with the youngest children. Educators who work with infants and toddlers make two dollars less per hour than those who care for three-to-five-year-olds. 

Diane Horn, director of the Early Childhood Education Institute at The University of Oklahoma at Tulsa, said the early years of a child’s life are the most developmentally crucial to later achievement in school and life.

“We also know that caregivers who work with infants and toddlers have the lowest wages,” Horn said. “They earn … less even in our low-paying profession of early childhood. Associated with that, we also know that infant/toddler caregivers have less formal education than their peers who work with older children. The low levels of formal education and compensation are ironic given the research that documents that these caregivers have the biggest impact on the child’s development next to their family.

Marcy Whitebook, Berkeley workforce specialist and index co-author, said system overhaul is needed to address disparities and an overall lack of support for early childhood workers. 

“Our report further documents that these and other identified disparities are often driven by policy and funding sources that have created an uneven playing field in which few have access to livable wages,” Whitebook said. “While there are small pockets of progress, no one state has yet met the challenge of transforming early childhood jobs for all or even for most early educators. To do so requires transforming broader early childhood policies and infrastructure and embracing early care and education as a public good. The time for reform is long overdue.”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.