Biden’s universal pre-k plan must include higher wages for preschool teachers, say experts
Last November, voters in Multnomah County, Oregon, passed the country’s most progressive universal preschool policy to date. Funded by a marginal tax rate on the highest income earners in the county—in other words, by taxing the rich—the universal policy guarantees free preschool for children ages three and four and provides multiple options for what that could look like. As the program rolls out over the next five years, parents will be able to choose among full- and part-time, as well as year-round and weekend preschool sites for their children.
But what makes Multnomah County’s policy truly radical—as well as, its advocates believe, more effective than similar pre-K policies in other cities—is that it includes higher wages for preschool workers. Under the policy, preschool teachers will be paid on par with kindergarten teachers in the area, a measure that will immediately raise the pay for lead teachers from $31,000 to about $74,000. And teaching assistants, who typically earn minimum wage—which is $13.25 in the Portland metro area—will begin earning a base pay of around $20.
Experts say that for any universal pre-K policy to be successful, it must take a page from Multnomah County’s playbook, and prioritize wages and benefits for preschool teachers. That includes the one the Biden administration has said will be included in a forthcoming $3 trillion infrastructure plan.
“If universal pre-K is going to work, it needs to work for children, for families, and for the staff,” said Mary King, an economics professor emerita at Portland State University. “If it’s not meeting all of those three things, it’s not going to work.”
In New York City for example, home to a universal preschool program launched by Mayor Bill de Blasio in 2014, a lack of competitive wages for preschool workers has meant that many skilled teachers have left the state-subsidized program for the city’s public schools, which offer higher pay and more benefits. The result, King said, is higher staff turnover and less stability for the children and parents in the pre-K for all program.
“You’re constantly losing experienced, educated, and talented people,” King said. “And turnover is a problem in itself: Part of a strong preschool experience for children is consistent relationships with their caregivers and educators, and the educators themselves being able to work effectively as a team.”
Without competitive wages, a federal universal program might also be diminishing the labor pool required to fully staff it. According to research co-authored by King and Catherine J. Weinberger, a labor economist who at the University of California, Santa Barbara, more than four out of five employed people with college degrees in early childhood education do not currently work with young children. The biggest reason why appears to be the combination of difficult work conditions—caring for small children—and meager wages: In 2019, the median annual salary for a full-time preschool teacher was $29,340.
“Someone might really love what they do but need to find a different job to pay their bills,” said Laura McSorley, the director of early childhood policy at the Center for American Progress. “That’s not serving families.”
In addition to the lack of consistency for preschool children, this dynamic can also mean losing teachers with ties to the community they serve, which advocates say is also critical to children’s learning experience, since it often means reducing cultural barriers in the education system.
“It just makes for a more robust program,” said Susan Stamler, the executive director of United Neighborhood Houses, a New York-based advocacy group for progressive community-based programs. “Culturally, linguistically, socially—it’s critical to make sure there’s that connection between program and family, teacher and child. It’s critical for the success of the program as well as for the health and wellbeing of children and their families.”
Part of the reason for the low wages in the field has to do with the popular conception of teaching—and especially early childhood education—as being unskilled labor. Those who are particularly dismissive of the work of preschool teachers might liken it to “babysitting” (which also blithely suggests that babysitting doesn’t require its own set of skills and expertise). These ideas also stem from the historic undervaluing of women’s work in particular: The majority of preschool workers are women, and a disproportionate amount of them are women of color.
But studies show that preschool is an incredibly formative time for children, and children’s access to preschool programs can be determinative of not just their success in life, but the economic outcomes for their communities. Simply put: It’s cost-effective. While universal pre-K programs are pricey to launch, “over time, strikingly, governmental budget benefits alone would outweigh the costs of high-quality prekindergarten education investment,” according to the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “In short, high-quality prekindergarten pays for itself, and it benefits public balance sheets, children, their families, taxpayers, and society as a whole.”
And so, experts argue, it’s worth it to raise teachers’ wages, not just because it is the moral thing to do, but because it’s economically savvy as well.
Nonetheless, there is some concern that preschool workers could be neglected in conversations about the promise of the Biden administration’s universal pre-K proposal, as many people focus on the potential benefits for the staggering number of working mothers who have been pushed out of the workforce during the pandemic. Advocates say it’s important to remember that preschool teachers are often women workers, too, who themselves may be struggling to find affordable preschool and childcare: Many of them may not even be able to afford to send their children to the very same preschools where they work.
“There’s a craft to building neurons with young children through relationships and rich experiences … and a science to how young brains are developing,” McSorley said. “When the person who’s delivering that is themselves in extreme economic stress, we know that’s not good for them and it’s not necessarily good for the kids either. … I’m hopeful that during the pandemic parents and non-parents at all income levels saw how hard really thoughtful early childhood education is.”