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RAND Report Highlights Unique Challenges Facing Hawaii’s Early Child Care Workforce

Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

The early child care education workforce was strained even before the pandemic. Poor pay and benefits not only hurt recruitment and retention, but demoralized providers. While early childhood educators across the country are feeling the burden, the harsh economic realities are starker for their colleagues in Hawaii.

In a study published with RAND Corporation this year, the Early Childhood Educator Excellence and Equity Project at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa examined the wages, working conditions and benefit challenges for the ECE workforce in Hawaii. The project was funded primarily by a grant from the Early Educator Investment Collaborative. Researchers found that since the pandemic, it became more difficult to recruit teachers and retain them, according to Dr. Theresa Lock, director of the Hawaii Early Childhood Educator Excellence and Equity Project, who commissioned the study.

“Some of them, if they had an associate degree in early childhood education, could actually make even more if they went to work at a service industry job like a restaurant or even a fast food restaurant,” Lock said. “We found that that was the case, that some of our folks were actually leaving the field. So we wanted to really capture that in the data.”

The report also examined policy options in other states that employed both long-term and short-term strategies to improve recruitment and retention in the ECE field. Although Hawaii has increased investments in early child care education, the current level of funding has fallen short of what is needed to expand access to programs, the report notes.

Like their colleagues in the continental United States, ECE educators in Hawaii are often paid low wages and see little professional advancement in their careers. That low pay translates to a broader lack of respect for their profession, according to the RAND report.

“We work hard. And we try to get our children successful to get to kindergarten. But we still look like glorified babysitters,” one provider said in a focus group.

But Hawaii residents also face unique challenges; the state has the highest cost of living in the country, according to a recent ranking from the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center. Wages and salaries for early educators in Hawaii are not competitive with jobs requiring similar education or experience, the RAND report notes citing Bureau of Labor Statistic data.

“Median hourly wages, estimated at approximately $13–$17 per hour, are well below the living wage estimate of at least $28.50 per hour for the state,” the report states. “Although median wages for child care workers in Hawaii exceed the national median, the pattern is reversed once the high cost of living in the state is accounted for.”

Hawaii’s isolated location outside the mainland also means that the pool of ECE workers is not as flexible as other states, said Lynn Karoly, a RAND Corporation Senior Economist and professor at Pardee RAND Graduate School.

“If you were looking in other parts of the continental U.S. where people might move in and out more readily, you can expand the supply of your workforce more easily,” Karoly said. “So, when there are shortages of staff, they’re particularly hard to sell because it’s not as easy just to advertise, ‘We’ve got great positions and we pay well.’ You’ve got to move to Hawaii…that puts pressure on the ability to have the workforce that’s needed.”

The islands’ demographics are also distinct from their mainland counterparts and its workforce should reflect that diversity, including its native populations, the report notes. That means knowledge of the Hawaiian language and culture may also factor as a prerequisite for an ECE position. Hawaii could look to states like Oregon, which awarded grants to providers using an equity-based formula that accounted for underserved families, including culturally diverse families and those who receive subsidies, the authors wrote.

“There’s a real commitment to ensuring that programs in these early years are culturally relevant, with an increased emphasis on learning the native Hawaiian language,” Karoly said. “So that also means that you’re really looking for people who have that kind of training and backgrounds to serve in those roles, which, you know, is somewhat unique from what communities might be looking for in other parts of the country.”

Hawaii’s preschool infrastructure is one of the most tenuous in the nation. In 2016, just 1 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds were enrolled in state-funded pre-K in Hawaii, according to a report from Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research. The existing issues with recruitment and retention have only worsened since the pandemic. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, nearly 40 percent of child care providers shuttered across the country and in 2021, state-funded preschool enrollment dropped for the first time in two decades, according to the National Association for State Boards of Education.

“It’s already fragile, but I think it became even more fragmented and broken than ever before,” Lock said. “What we found even before the pandemic, we knew the wages were lower, especially in our private programs.”

The condition of preschools and the work environment for early child care educators is starting to get more attention among state politicians. In her inaugural speech, Hawaii’s newly-elected Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke singled out the high cost of tuition as another barrier to a coveted few preschool slots in Hawaii. Luke noted that the Hawaii legislature already provided funding for 2,000 to 4,000 new seats. While Luke has committed to expanding access to preschool, no one has identified state investments for the workforce yet, Lock said.

Successful Policies Ripe for Replication?

As part of their study, the authors looked at what policies have worked in other states to boost recruitment and retention. In particular, a recent tax increase in the District of Columbia drew their attention. In 2021, the D.C. Council voted in support of a tax increase on those earning $250,000 or more per year. The tax was expected to garner $100 million in revenue to fund early childhood education from birth to age three, Washington City Paper reported.

Karoly noted that D.C. and Hawaii’s ECE sectors are similar sizes and share challenges around compensating their early childhood workforce and getting a high-quality early learning opportunity. At the same time, she acknowledged that while the progressive tax solution worked for D.C., regressive taxes might garner more support in other states.

The D.C. Council also established the Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force, which provides recommendations on how to implement an employee compensation scale for early childhood development providers. In 2018, the D.C. Council passed the Birth-to-Three for All D.C. Act, which requires the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to create compensation scales that ensure compensation parity with D.C. public schools teachers. While the pay scale was still under development, D.C. distributed pay supplements to early educators.

Researchers also examined wage programs in North Carolina, Tennessee and Illinois. The Covid-19 stimulus package pumped $805 million into the North Carolina Child Care Stabilization Grants, which aim to improve recruitment and retention. Since the grant program launched, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services distributed more than $335 million to nearly 4,000 child care centers, the Daily Record reported. In March 2021, Illinois launched a three-year pilot program that provided $3.8 million per year to hire additional staff or increase the salaries of existing staff for 35 child care centers in rural counties. Illinois drew funding for the pilot from both the federal Preschool Development Grant Birth through Five and state child care funds.

Salary scales and compensation parity work offer long term, sustainable solutions, while the bonus programs have often prevented the existing workforce from looking for jobs elsewhere that pay the same or more, Karoly said.

“The problem with these wage bonuses is that because they don’t change the underlying base compensation, they can easily go away and you’re back to where you are,” she said. “It becomes kind of a temporary fix, but they also used it as a way to make the transition to this approach of having a salary scale.”

Legislators in Hawaii are already looking at wage pilots or bonus programs of their own. In early 2022, Hawaii State Senator Bennette Misalucha introduced two bills aimed at improving child care worker retention. The first bill, SB2700, would authorize the Department of Human Services to require staff of licensed and registered early childhood programs to provide specific information each year to the Department’s Early Childhood Workforce Registry. Misalucha’s other bill, SB2701, would use department of human services funds to establish a one-year child care worker subsidy pilot program to help retain the existing workforce.

SB2701 failed, but advocates plan on taking up similar bills again during the legislative session in January, Lock said. She hopes the report is the first step toward more concrete efforts to improve ECE worker compensation in Hawaii.

“The vision for our state is that every child should benefit from high quality programs that are supported by a well-prepared, well-compensated early care and education workforce,” Lock said. “And it’s going to take time.”

Leigh Giangreco is a journalist who has chronicled everything from the catastrophic failure of the Pentagon’s most expensive fighter jet program to why Joe Biden is on Tinder. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Politico, Washington City Paper, Citylab, Washingtonian, Eater Chicago, and more.

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