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Not-so-hidden ‘gap’ in educators’ pay

Teacher pay has emerged as a central issue in the governor’s race, appropriately enough. But another education-and-pay issue remains largely in the policy shadows, awaiting a fresh burst of state initiative.

This issue is neatly summarized in the headline of a recent “fact sheet’’ from the U.S. Department of Education: “Troubling Pay Gap for Early Childhood Teachers.” In the United States, 97 percent of early childhood teachers and workers are women.

In North Carolina as elsewhere, both Republicans and Democrats have come to see the potential of expanded, high-quality early childhood programs to improve educational outcomes and enrich lives. It will require them to address the “pay gap,’’ as well as the training of a skilled workforce for pre-kindergarten, to move the state forward again in early childhood care, health and education.

“Studies show that attending high-quality early education can result in children building a solid foundation for achieving academic, health and social outcomes that are of benefit to individual families and to the country as a whole,” says the Department of Education paper issued in June.

“Yet,’’ it continues, “preschool teachers are paid less than mail order clerks, tree trimmers and pest control workers. Child care workers make less than hairdressers and janitors. In fact, most early childhood educators earn so little that they qualify for public benefits, including the very programs they teach targeting low-income families.”

That point gets extra emphasis in a new report from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. It reports that more than four out of 10 child care workers come from families enrolled in at least one of these public support programs: Earned Income Tax Credit, Children’s Health Insurance Program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (formerly food stamps), and Temporary Assistance to Needy Families.

The Berkeley center’s report asserts that “our system of preparing, supporting and rewarding early educators in the United States remains largely ineffective, inefficient and inequitable.” It goes on to argue that “transforming early childhood jobs requires transforming wider early childhood policies and infrastructure and embracing early care and education as a public good.”

The education department’s paper has a state-by-state chart on annual median salaries for various segments of the early childhood workforce in 2015. The chart shows that the state falls below the national median in each category documented, though the education department cites North Carolina favorably as one of eight states that require salary parity for all lead teachers in pre-K in public schools.

Of course, early childhood education takes place in a variety of settings, some public, some private. And, the many parents who turn to private or church-run facilities pay dearly for the care and education of their young children. Raising pay would surely result in an even heavier financial burden on parents, or more families priced out of the enrichment that benefits their children and society. Unless our state and nation limit quality early childhood education only to the affluent, there is no alternative to addressing the pay gap and upgrading the quality of early childhood teaching without creative public sector engagement.

Beginning two decades ago, North Carolina marched for a while in the front rank of states with three interlocking programs: SmartStart, More at Four and child-care subsidies. When Republicans gained control of the legislature, they folded More at Four into NC PreK, and shifted it from the Department of Public Instruction to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The budget adopted in 2015 called for a legislative subcommittee to study NC Pre-K, Smart Start and the child care subsidy program. Now the budget adopted this year calls for the Department of Health, in consultation with the Department of Public Instruction, to come up with a “strategic vision’’ and a “comprehensive approach’’ for education in the years from birth through third grade.

Meanwhile, the legislature appropriated an additional $1.325 million to child care subsidies and $1.325 million to add a grand total of 260 children to NC Pre-K. It also appropriated $3.45 million to increase the child care subsidy market rate in economically distressed counties.

At least North Carolina is not moving backward. It now moves forward in incremental steps. Let’s face it: A real “vision’’ for the future is unlikely to come from a legislative subcommittee or from two departments in the second half of an election year. A serious fresh initiative in early childhood education will require sustained gubernatorial leadership, post-election.

Ferrel Guillory
Ferrel Guillory serves on the board of directors of EducationNC and is professor of the practice emeritus at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.