Elliot’s Provocations: In Plain Dollars and Cents, a Child Care Policy Without Major Compensation Increases Is No Child Care Policy

Elliot’s Provocations unpacks current events in the early learning world and explores how we can chart a path to a future where all children can flourish. Regarding the title, if you’re not steeped in early childhood education (ECE) lingo, a “provocation” is the field’s term—taken from the Reggio-Emilia philosophy of early education—for offering someone the opportunity to engage with an idea.

We hope this monthly column does that: provocations are certainly not answers, but we hope Elliot’s Provocations helps you pause and consider concepts in a different way.

When you are sinking into quicksand, it doesn’t do much good if your would-be rescuers throw half a length of rope and say they’ll be back next year with a bit more. [1]

That’s how I feel about a lot of the current child care proposals. While there is welcome momentum at many state houses, almost no one is willing to contend with the true cost of a sustainable system that includes well-compensated educators.

Because here’s the thing: with the workforce still down 80,000 educators from pre-pandemic levels, staffing shortages are keeping us from even filling our existing capacity, much less increasing supply! So, you can make child care cheaper, but without handling the compensation issue, you’re going to generate a whole lot of demand without anywhere for it to go. (Even Canada, with a vastly better funded system, is learning this lesson the hard way: a recent headline read “Child-care costs are down and demand is up, but a shortage of spaces, staff persists.”)

It’s worth putting a fine point on how much the early care and education workforce is struggling. A new report from the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Center found that in Texas—aka the country’s second-largest state—“the median hourly wage for early childhood educators … is only $12 per hour, which amounts to an annual wage of $24,960 for an early childhood educator who works full time.” That’s more than $4 below the state living wage, a bar crossed by only 1 in 10(!) Texas early educators. Sadly, Texas isn’t an outlier.

A new report from the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Center found that in Texas—aka the country’s second-largest state—“the median hourly wage for early childhood educators … is only $12 per hour, which amounts to an annual wage of $24,960 for an early childhood educator who works full time.” That’s more than $4 below the state living wage, a bar crossed by only 1 in 10(!) Texas early educators. Sadly, Texas isn’t an outlier.

There’s also almost no room for professional growth. The Center went on to note that an educator with 25 years of experience can expect to make only $2 an hour more(!) than a first-year educator. As a cherry on top, few have access to benefits: a companion report showed that less than 1 in 3 Texas early educators have employer-sponsored health insurance or retirement plans, and only half have paid sick days.

That last fact is especially painful considering that the well-being of the workforce is in decline thanks to the pandemic and stress on the sector. A new Virginia study that tracked educators at 100 centers reported a major jump in depressive symptoms between 2019 and 2022, from 19% to 32%, with almost half displaying some evidence of food insecurity. The Virginia data is consonant with Texas’: half of educators with paid sick leave, although in the Old Dominion a whole 40% have employer health insurance (woo-hoo?). Thanks to inflation, real wages between 2020 and 2022 actually went down.

All this to say, raising the median child care wage from $12 an hour to $14 an hour isn’t getting it done. Particularly in a low-unemployment economy still dealing with inflation. The competition isn’t letting up (which is good! Full-time jobs should respect people’s hard work and enable them to live reasonably!): Chipotle recently announced it is hiring 15,000 new workers, and they offer an average wage of $16 an hour with medical, PTO, retirement and more. United Airlines is offering a nearly $20 an hour starting wage with a $10,000 signing bonus for baggage handlers at some airports. California, meanwhile, may well move to a $22 minimum wage for fast food workers depending on what voters decide in 2024.

Let me put this in plain dollars and cents: child care needs to be a job with at least a $40,000 a year starting salary plus benefits [2]. That equates to around $20 an hour. (Substantially more will be required in high cost-of-living cities.) There also needs to be opportunities for robust wage growth; there’s no reason a lead teacher with 25 years of experience who displays mastery and leadership within their program shouldn’t be making $75,000+ a year. [3] What’s more, permanently raising wages can raise quality by cultivating less-stressed, better-trained staff. Frankly, if your governor doesn’t have a plan in place to get the child care workforce up to the $20 an hour level within the next few years, your governor doesn’t have a child care plan.

The good news is that we finally have some hard proposals and numbers starting to come in that would make the necessary moves. In Vermont, a legislature-commissioned study from the RAND Corporation laid out the costs—and potential sources of tax revenue—needed to establish a sustainable child care system. Crucially (and all credit to advocates and elected champions on this), as the VT Digger reported, “In conducting their study, the consultants were given a two-fold mandate: Figure out how much it would cost to ensure that families receiving state help pay no more than 10% of their income toward child care—even as wages are raised such that child care workers earn salaries in line with their peers in public education.”

RAND found that Vermont early educators currently make an average of $30,000 a year, whereas early elementary school teachers are making around $60,000. For their cost model, they asked what it would look like to raise the starting salary of a lead teacher with no degree but a Child Development Associate certificate up to $42,000 a year, one with an Associate Degree to $50,000, and one with a Bachelor’s to meet their elementary counterparts at $60,000. [4] Importantly, there is room to grow within these bands, with the top-end Bachelor’s-holding early educator reaching $90,000.

This is a serious proposal. It includes real costs (between $180 million and $280 million annually in new funding) and real potential revenue sources (options include either one or a combination of: a payroll tax on employers, a sugary beverage tax, a sales tax increase, and so on). These are big numbers for a small state, and no politician likes to talk tax increases, but it sets the stage for honest conversations about how these are truly investments worth more than their outlays. A Vermont journalist recently remarked that “in testimony this week … you have small businesses that come up and they’re asked by committee members, would you support a 0.9% payroll tax? [The amount RAND suggests is needed to fund the system]. And they go, oh, of course I would. I can pay for that in one single shift. And that’s a conversation that we haven’t heard before on child care.”

More of these sorts of conversation-starters may be on their way. Washington, D.C. is already moving toward full salary parity, with health benefits, between early childhood educators and K-12 educators. Colorado’s Early Childhood Compensation and Benefits Task Force is set to release its findings and recommendations in the coming weeks.

With major federal child care action stalled, now is the time to be laying the groundwork both for state actions and for defining the scope of federal funding needed. Every state should follow the lead of Vermont and other vanguard states by commissioning a report on what it would cost—and potential revenue sources—not only to make child care affordable, but to make child care a sustainable occupation for educators. Ideally, such reports would be commissioned via bipartisan legislation and led by impartial third parties in order to minimize accusations of bias.

Incrementalism in child care ceased to be an option years ago. Without the compensation in place to recruit and retain a robust workforce, little else matters in child care policy. The sector is sinking. Will policymakers realize that half a rope is, in this case, the same as no rope at all?

[1] Though, as comedian John Mulaney and others have pointed out, I’ve encountered far less quicksand than I was led to believe as a child.

[2] I accept that there is regional variation given cost of living, etc., but I maintain there should be a floor that keeps the job is attractive and sustainable everywhere.

[3] For comparison, that’s what a highly experienced K-12 teacher in the St. Louis area can make.

[4] If you’ve been following me, you know I have some feelings about the credentialism of tethering salary bands to degrees—and relying on parity with K-12 educators, for that matter—but that’s not the point today.

Elliot Haspel is a nationally-recognized child & family policy expert and commentator, with a specialty in early childhood and education issues. He is the author of Crawling Behind: America’s Childcare Crisis and How to Fix It, and a Senior Fellow at the think tank Capita. Elliot has appeared on television as an analyst, including on The PBS Newshour with Judy Woodruff, and his writings have appeared in a wide variety of top publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic. Elliot holds an B.A. in History from the University of Virginia and an M.Ed. in Education Policy from Harvard's Graduate School of Education.

Elliot also writes a free semi-monthly newsletter, The Parents Aren't Alright.

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