The Labor Force For Needed Investment in Public Child Care Already Exists

The COVID-19 pandemic powerfully clarified what most families have known for decades: Reliable, quality child care is essential to the round-the-clock functioning of the U.S. economy. Equally important, good child care is critical to the future and wellbeing of the nation’s children. Decades of strong research shows that publicly provided high quality early childhood education and care improves life outcomes, reduces poverty and economic inequality, diminishes economic disparities by race and gender, strengthens local economies and yields high returns to taxpayer investments. Yet public investment in child care in the states lags decades behind other wealthy countries despite the extensive evidence.

The quality of preschool and child care critically depends on a skilled, experienced, dedicated labor force that is strongly motivated to work with young children. Yet the vast majority of skilled caregivers and teachers abandon work with young children for other employment before age thirty. This is true at all levels of education, including those with college degrees. This “lost” workforce could be recalled and retained if early preschool and childcare policies are designed to address the low pay, sparse benefits and challenging working conditions that currently lead to high attrition and turnover.

The Untapped Reservoir of Qualified Early Childhood Education and Care Workers

Women account for more than 97 percent of employed, college educated people with college majors in early childhood education. More than 4 of 5 of them do not work with young children. By contrast, 78 percent of employed women with college degrees in nursing are actively working as nurses.

Just 18 percent of employed women with college degrees in early childhood education work with young children as preschool teachers, kindergarten teachers, or childcare workers. Women with associate’s degrees and certificates in early childhood education and development also leave the field in much larger numbers than in other occupations.

Low Pay and Poor Working Conditions Drive Away Early Childhood Workers

Public investment should remove the biggest obstacle to keeping trained people: the combination of low pay and difficult working conditions. These conditions include frequent short-staffing and lack of paid time to prepare for class or to meet with co-workers. More than a quarter of those who remain in the field in their thirties have managed to find positions as preschool or kindergarten teachers in K-12 schools, where conditions are better than in free-standing preschool and childcare workplaces.

In 2020, the median hourly wage of childcare workers in the U.S. was $12.24, meaning an annual salary of $24,480 if full-time, year-round work were available. Benefits are poor, or non-existent. Preschool teachers are not compensated much better, with a median hourly wage of $15.35 in 2020, which translates to $30,700 annually if full-time. Elementary school teachers, by contrast, earn a mean annual salary of $65,420.

Unsurprisingly, turnover rates are high in the early childhood labor force, harming quality and wasting the training, experience and dedication of people who’ve made significant investments in preparing for a career in early childhood education. More than half of women in their 30s with early childhood college majors are working as teachers in the first through twelfth grades.

“At 40 with two kids to support, I wanted a job in the public schools, which gave me more money, benefits and time off, without the headache of trying to hire people at rock-bottom wages or the long days finishing my Director’s duties after being pulled into the classroom to cover for a sick teacher.”

          – Avril Munro, retired master elementary school teacher

Only One in Six Early Childhood Majors Remain in the Field by Age 30

Women with college degrees in early childhood education shift out of work with young children as they age and their responsibilities to support their families increase. Just one in six remain in the field by age 30.

It’s not only low pay and meager benefits that push people out of early childhood education. It’s also the limited scope for advancement in our fractured, largely private childcare system, which is unconnected to schools for older children.

“It wasn’t just the low pay and lack of support, although I did want to be able to buy a house, raise a child and pay for childcare. It was also that I wanted to work in a bigger arena and to have a greater impact, so I enrolled in an MBA program offered in the evening. I spent the rest of my career directing a nonprofit focused on improving STEM education, but my passion has always been early childhood education.”

          – Jennifer Bruckner, retired non-profit director

In short, policymakers and advocates should focus less on expanding the pipeline of people coming from educational and training programs in early childhood education. They need to focus much more on keeping experienced people in the field by creating good jobs that reward early childhood educators for the value of the contribution they are making. If good jobs are available, students will recruit themselves into our educational programs and remain working in the field they were drawn to and invested in as young adults.

Read more in Lisa Dodson and Mary C. King, “Oregon’s Unmet Childcare Needs,” Family Forward Oregon, September 2019; and Catherine J. Weinberger, “Where Did They All Go? A Closer Look at the Labor Markets for Preschool Teachers and Childcare Workers,” The Institute for Social, Behavioral and Economic Research, University of California Santa Barbara, 2021.

This article was originally published on Scholars Strategy Network.

Why America Should Have Universal Early Education for Young Children

Many Americans with young children want to prioritize both their family and their work. But childcare and preschool can be expensive. For families with incomes below $18,000 who pay for out-of-home care, the average cost amounts to 40% of their household income. For those with incomes between $18,000 and $36,000, the average is 20% of their income. Faced with such unaffordable expenses, some parents settle for care that is mediocre or poor. In other families, the mother may simply forgo employment.

We can do better. The solution is universal early education for kids aged one to four.

The employment rate for U.S. mothers whose youngest child is six to sixteen years old is comparable to the rate for such mothers in Denmark and Sweden. But for mothers with a child younger than six, the U.S. employment rate is 15 percent lower. Affordable, good-quality early education isn’t available to many American families with very young children, but it is available to all Danish and Swedish families at early education centers. In Denmark and Sweden, early education teachers get training and pay comparable to elementary school teachers, so the quality of early education tends to be high, and the cost to parents is capped at less than 10% of a household’s income.

Early education has another benefit: it helps to equalize opportunity by improving the capabilities of children from less advantaged homes. Researchers have not yet defined exactly how large this equalizing effect is, but even if it turns out to be small, early education programs still offer the vital benefit of enabling working parents to better handle and balance their obligations at work and in the family.

If the United States decides to institute early childhood education, what form should the effort take? To contain costs, some recommend that public funding for such programs be focused on children from households with low incomes. But a universal system – like America’s universal public school system – would have several important advantages. First, it isn’t just low-income parents who struggle to find good-quality care that’s affordable. Middle-class parents do too. Second, children can be disadvantaged in life by features of family structure or parental behavior that do not occur just among low-income people. If early education programs target only low-income households, many children who need help will be left out. Third, researchers know that children develop cognitively and learn social skills through interaction, and children from economically disadvantaged homes gain by mixing with kids from middle-class homes. Chances for many valuable interactions would be lost if early education was set up only for the poor.

Universal early education doesn’t have to be accomplished by a government monopoly. Providers of early education can be a mix of public agencies, nonprofit organizations, and private groups. Parents could be given a voucher and allowed to choose among providers that meet quality standards. Some advocates prefer exclusively public provision, but Denmark and Sweden allow private providers, and the United States allows private charter schools to participate in publicly-funded elementary and secondary education. Similarly, in U.S. Medicare and Medicaid programs, public funds are used to pay for provision by private companies that meet certain standards and to buy services from private doctors and hospitals.

Can the United States afford to expand education this much? A good-quality universal early education system for one-to-four-year-olds would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of one percent of the Gross Domestic Product. This assumes that three-quarters of children would be enrolled and the cost would be about $12,000 per child, roughly what we spend on schools for kindergarten through twelfth grade. Denmark and Sweden spend about 1.5% of their Gross Domestic Products, but the U.S. economy is larger per person, so we wouldn’t need to spend quite as much of it to support a similarly good system.

Though tax revenues would have to be increased, for most Americans the impact would be small. If the distribution of the required new tax payments were the same as for existing tax payments, households in the bottom fifth of incomes would pay $133 more per year, those in the lower-middle fifth $333, those in the middle fifth $666, those in the upper-middle fifth $1,266, and those in the top fifth $4,200. In practice, the actual new costs would be a bit smaller, because U.S. governments already spend some public money on early education. The federal government funds Head Start, some special education services, and tax breaks for childcare; and some state governments fund preschool for four-year-olds and subsidize childcare for poor families.

Moreover, some of the needed revenue can come from user fees. Early education is different from police protection and health care, the kinds of services that almost no one opts to go without. Even if good early education programs were readily available, some families would choose not to use them because they prefer to provide stay-at-home parental care for their young children. And of course, some American adults have no children. This set of realities argues for having parents who do want to use early education pay something – even parents with low incomes. Here too the Nordic approach is sensible; in Denmark and Sweden programs charge on a sliding scale, with the fee rising in proportion to family income, but never going above 10%.

In the United States, getting to universal early education is likely to be a long and tricky political slog, just as earlier breakthroughs to eventually popular and taken-for-granted social programs have been. The most likely route runs through the states and cities. Places as diverse as Oklahoma and New York City have already moved to provide programs for four-year-olds, and as other states and cities follow suit, the pressure will mount for the federal government to get involved, so that Americans, wherever they may live, can gain access to good-quality early education programs that promise valuable benefits for children, parents, and the entire U.S. economy.

Head Start May Protect Against Foster Care Placement

Participating in Head Start may help prevent young children from being placed in foster care, finds a national study led by a Michigan State University researcher.

Kids up to age 5 in the federal government’s preschool program were 93 percent less likely to end up in foster care than kids in the child welfare system who had no type of early care and education, said Sacha Klein, MSU assistant professor of social work.

Klein and colleagues examined multiple forms of early care and education – from daycare with a family member to more structured programs – and found Head Start was the only one to guard against foster care placement.

“The findings seem to add to what we already know about the benefits of Head Start,” Klein said. “This new evidence suggests Head Start not only helps kids develop and allows parents to go to work, but it may also help at-risk kids from ending up in the foster care system.”

Klein and colleagues studied the national survey data of nearly 2,000 families in which a child had entered the child welfare system for suspicion of abuse or neglect. Those children were either pulled from the home or were being overseen by a caseworker.

Klein said Head Start may protect against foster care because of its focus on the entire family. Services go beyond providing preschool education to include supporting parental goals such as housing stability, continued education and financial security.

There are more than 400,000 children in foster care in the United States, about a third of them under the age of 5, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. All children in foster care automatically qualify for free Head Start services, regardless of income level.

Klein said the findings suggest policymakers should consider making all children in the child welfare system, including those living at home, automatically eligible for Head Start. That could help prevent more kids from ending up in foster care.

While foster care can be a vital resource for protecting children from abusive and neglectful parents, it is rarely a panacea for young kids, the study notes.

“Indeed, young children who are placed in foster care often have compromised socio-emotional, language and cognitive development and poor early academic and health outcomes,” the authors write. “Trauma and deprivation experienced before removal may largely drive these developmental deficits, but foster care often fails to alleviate them and sometimes can worsen them.”

Klein’s co-authors are Lauren Fries of MSU and Mary Emmons of Children’s Institute Inc. in Los Angeles.

Early Childhood Education Pilot has Complex Mix of Concerns

Recently, the Office of Head Start (OHS) announced its 2014 recipients of the Birth-to-Five Pilot program. As a graduate of head start, head start training curriculum developer, and trainer, I am encouraged by the pilot.

If you know anything about head start, you realize how important it is as a community development tool when done effectively with integrity. That’s the OHS’s intention with this new initiative. It also serves to highlight the varied concerns that are important to any social program.

According to the Administration of Children and families,

ECE_coverOriginally announced last year, the pilot aims to give communities greater flexibility in designing Head Start and Early Head Start programs to better serve the needs of young children and communities from birth until they enter pre-k or kindergarten.

“The response to this Birth-to-Five pilot points to increased need for high-quality infant and toddler care through Early Head Start,” said Linda Smith, deputy assistant secretary and interdepartmental liaison for early childhood development for children and families. “This reinforces the administration’s early childhood plan to expand the home visiting program, increase access to infant and toddler care, and make pre-kindergarten available for all.” Read More


I do not think many are left who would argue that it is a good idea for providers to compete for the OHS program dollars. What may be missed is what the pilot also accomplished with expanding competition as one concern. They had to allow for innovation!

The OHS has a competency-based structure that is amenable to innovative programming, but the history-based insistence on traditional approaches, attempts to replicate post-K schooling, and some evaluative practices kept innovation to a minimum. This new pilot gave programs an intentional mandate to develop programs that meet the competencies in new ways. The competitive nature of the pilot meant that the best ideas competed rather than the “safest.” As the announcement states, continued funding will also be competitive. The OHS is also moving from indefinite grant periods to 5-year cycles overall. This will hopefully result in programs that focus on innovation, efficiency, and achievement of ALL competencies rather than inferior, reductive measures of child school readiness.

Starting Earlier

With the hype of baby developmental products matched with the desire of seemingly every parent to see her child read, potty train, and walk as soon as possible, some may miss the lessons of child development. A move to earlier child education is less about books and math. It is more about the environment. Children are each different. They develop at different paces. The environment, both structure and influences, is as important an ingredient as “education.”

It is paramount that we not forget that the primary contribution if head start programs is the provision of home visits and establishment of a network around parents. This network connects them with their communities. It engages them intentionally in the development of the child. This community and supportive environment is THE engine of education for the young child.

What many do not realize is that head start is the only social program that actively recruits recipients as staff. In fact, over 1.3 million adults volunteered through head start in 2011, the last year data has been tabulated. A mom or dad with the program can work as a teacher, family service worker, bus driver, or cook. He or she can work up to being a team leader or site manager. The esteem, mobility, and continued development of parents further enhances the environment that the child grows and learns within.

The Pre-K Prep Argument

Recent criticism of head start has focused on the research explaining that the gains of early childhood education even out with children not in such programs by 3rd grade. Those who are not familiar with the services of head start may not realize that the span between kindergarten and third grade represents a tremendous loss of services. It is my hope that the findings of the research give impetus to us for school improvement beyond kindergarten.

The studies in question recognized that children moving from head start to kindergarten were developmentally and academically ahead. By the time they were in 3rd grade, the other children had caught up. One way to interpret this is to say that the school system could not maintain the gains. But, I would rather focus on a question of competition, parental involvement, and community supports in the public school system. Consider what education would be and what our communities would be if schools operated like head start programs: If they competed each year on innovation, if their model was to develop community through parents, if the “service” to families was equal to the “education” mandate. I am looking forward to the day when OHS launches that pilot.

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