When businesses consider expansion or relocation, they look for thriving communities with a strong social infrastructure that promotes a good quality of life. A key component of this social infrastructure is early care and education. Research tells us that high quality early learning opportunities both foster children’s development and facilitate parents’ employment.
But “social infrastructure” is a rather technical term for what we know is most important to child development and long-term child and family outcomes – relationships are the key! A child’s first relationships and interactions with family members and early educators are the most critical in supporting healthy development.
It follows then that the backbone of quality early education is a stable, qualified, and compensated early childhood workforce. Those first caregiving relationships with early educators provide the foundation for healthy development through nurturing, early learning opportunities and partnership, and communication with families.
The recently released 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index provides a snapshot of early childhood workforce conditions. According to this Index, for the 36,550 members of the early childhood teaching workforce statewide, North Carolina is making progress in some areas like educational supports, compensation, and data, but is stalled in others such as work environments and family and income supports.
Child care workforce compensation and lack of supports are barriers to quality
In contrast to what we know about the vital role of early educators in fostering early learning and development, they are woefully underpaid and these positions are in fact considered “low wage” jobs. In 2017, the median hourly wage for child care professionals in North Carolina was $9.86. Early educators often do not earn enough to meet their basic needs, and teachers of infants and toddlers are the most likely to be in economic distress. This is in direct opposition with what we know about the first three years of brain development and the part early educators have in fostering this growth.
In North Carolina, strategies have been developed by Child Care Services Association (CCSA) to increase the education and compensation of early educators and reduce turnover in the child care workforce. The T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® Scholarship Program provides comprehensive educational scholarships that link the completion of formal education to compensation increases, and the Child Care WAGE$® Program offers salary supplements based on level of education.
Results of these strategies include increased workforce retention, increased education levels, and improved capacity to deliver high quality care. In response to the disparities for early educators teaching the youngest children, CCSA will have the opportunity to administer a new statewide salary supplement initiative from the Division of Child Development and Early Education (DCDEE) that will support full-time infant and toddler teachers in increasing their earnings based on education.
Families struggle with access to early education
A comprehensive early education system with qualified teachers is one part of the equation, but families must be able to access this child care. Right now, affordability is a significant barrier for many families. According to the 2018 Early Childhood Workforce Index, North Carolina is ‘stalled’ in the areas of Family Income Supports and Health and Well-being. The Index notes the absence of the following in North Carolina: a higher than federal minimum wage indexed for inflation, paid sick days law, paid family leave law, and expanded Medicaid eligibility.
Without these critical family supports or a publicly-funded early childhood education system for children birth to five in place, low and middle-income families face difficulty affording high quality child care. The high cost of early education can force families to make tradeoffs that impact their economic security and/or welfare of their children. In addition, child care costs may contribute to decision making about whether or not to have children and family size. In a New York Times survey, young adults identified child care costs as one of the main factors in having fewer children than they considered ideal.
While North Carolina has invested in its early childhood system and workforce, and has several national program models to show for it, there is much still to be done to adequately support early educators and families. We need to do more to enhance our programs and policies to ensure there is a robust, highly educated, and appropriately compensated early childhood workforce and early childhood system birth to five for all families to utilize.
Investments in early education will foster individual and family well-being and ensure communities are prepared for business growth.