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Improving early learning starts with raising teacher pay


(Jan. 13, 2016) — You may remember the Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson hit from the mid-’70s that started, “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys.” There’s probably less chance to become a cowboy these days — but if you change the line to “Mammas, don’t let your babies grow up to be child care teachers,” it would hold up!

preschool-kidsWhen my daughter was in high school, she was interested in working with young children. And she was good at it. As a parent, I wanted her to be able to earn a decent living — so I was happy when she shifted her focus to journalism. That says something, as journalism is not a profession known for high compensation.

In 2004, child care aides on average made $10.68 an hour, adjusted for inflation. In 2014, they made $10.70 an hour. That’s a two cent per hour increase in a decade — and that’s also a doorway to poverty. Today’s child care teachers make about $26,000 a year. For child care supervisors, their income has actually fallen by $1,000 since 2004. It is now hovering at $31,000 a year.

State legislators passed the Early Start Act last year, and boosted funding for the Department of Early Learning by $133 million. The bulk of those funds will support bigger state reimbursements to child care providers for caring for low income kids. But that’s a wobbly structure. The foundation for high-quality early learning is a highly competent teacher and caregiver. And what determines that? Education, professionalization, and compensation.

The Legislature has turned a blind eye to Washington’s youngest residents by passing legislation (like the Early Start Act) that talks a lot about high quality child care, with nary a word about teacher compensation.

The consequences of low wages are clear here, as they are in any workforce: low morale, high turnover, and not much education. It’s not a pathway to high quality early learning. Our legislators have passed legislation recommending the Department of Early Learning “provide professional development and coaching opportunities to early child care and education providers… include[ing] opportunities for scholarships and grants to assist… program participants with the costs associated with obtaining an educational degree.”

That all sounds good, but why would anyone actually go and get an education degree, when for all their time and effort, they will still be working their way into poverty? A better idea is for the state to simply help improve the compensation of the caregivers and teachers. Given the Department of Early Learning’s $490 million budget, it could easily be a priority.

In fact, the state once had a career and wage ladder for early learning teachers and caregivers. It rewarded teachers with extra increments of pay for additional education and longevity in the profession. Many legislative champions for early learning worked to pass this into law over a decade ago, including Majority Caucus Chair Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle), Rep. Ruth Kagi (D-Shoreline), and Sen. Maralyn Chase (D-Shoreline).

But funding for the wage ladder ended during the recession, and legislators never restored it, choosing nice-sounding words instead of dealing with the nitty-gritty of compensating the people who are responsible for some our youngest and most vulnerable kids.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The wage ladder a sure bet. It’s been evaluated over and over again, showing that it succeeded in improving teacher education, compensation, morale, and quality of care. Now that the 2016 legislative session has started, there is a new budget to build. The Legislature could find the resources to fund the career and wage ladder for early learning teachers.

burbank-johnWith decent wages, maybe more of today’s high school and college students would consider becoming respected early learning teachers, able to follow their calling into the field, instead of choosing something else simply out of worry for their pocketbooks.

John Burbank is the executive director and founder of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle. John can be reached at

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