Commentary

Early childhood education is life-changing. We need to support those who teach it | Opinion

The Legislature also needs to significantly increase investments in early childhood programs for children from birth to five

(Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images)

By Laura Smith

Zachary tumbled into my Head Start classroom excited to make new friends and explore every toy and material we had to offer. However, when he tried to talk to his peers, they couldn’t understand him – and neither could I.

His “exploring” looked more like dumping toys and walking away, and when he was directed to clean up, he stomped his feet and began throwing the toys he had just dumped.

Within the first few weeks, Zachary was screened and qualified for speech and occupational therapy. These therapists, along with behavioral staff, became his support team.

After two years in our preschool program, Zachary was still excited to come to school every day, but now he was able to use his words to solve problems, sit on the carpet for ten minutes unassisted, and write his first and his last name. Throughout this time, two years, I planned lessons, met with support staff, and coordinated services to ensure Zachary had what he needed to succeed in kindergarten.

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Zachary’s needs are not unique, nor are the benefits of early education and intervention for students like him. High-quality early childhood education (ECE) programs have the ability to positively influence not only a child’s academic career, but their entire life.

Research shows that children who attend a high-quality ECE program have an increased likelihood of graduating from high school, experience fewer teenage pregnancies, commit fewer crimes, and earn higher salaries than children who do not.

Unfortunately, in Pennsylvania, 85% of eligible infants and toddlers are unserved by the publicly funded Child Care Works program, and 60% of eligible 3- and 4-year olds lack access to publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs.

At a moment when we should be expanding access to early childhood programs, our field has lost 8.5% of its workforce.

At a moment when we should be expanding access to early childhood programs, our field has lost 8.5% of its workforce. One contributing factor to this loss is inadequate, and often poverty-level, wages.

How can we ensure that early childhood education is recognized, and therefore funded, as an integral part of a child’s journey and that we have a full cadre of ECE educators ready to teach our children?

First, we must increase teacher compensation. Doing so would not only attract but also help retain ECE teachers. Eighteen percent of early childhood teachers are living in poverty, with the median hourly wage of ECE teachers in Pennsylvania ranging from $10.69 for child care teachers to $13.96 for preschool teachers.

This falls short of the median wage for all U.S. occupations and doesn’t come close to that of a kindergarten teacher at $36.58. We need to move to income parity with our public school colleagues.

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Further, the Pennsylvania General Assembly needs to significantly increase investments in publicly-funded ECE programs for children from birth to five.

In his 2022-2023 state budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf demonstrated a continued commitment to pre-school by increasing state funding for publicly funded pre-kindergarten by $70 million. This investment would translate to increased early childhood education access for Pennsylvania’s 3-4 year olds, and legislators must work to include the full $70 million in the final budget.

However, Wolf proposed flat funding for child care services and assistance for the third straight year. Where does that leave Pennsylvania’s infants and toddlers?

Pennsylvania lawmakers should allocate at least $115 million in state and federal dollars toward a wage supplement for childcare teachers and staff, improving staff recruitment and retention and leading to more classrooms available to serve our youngest citizens.

All families, whether they live in the suburbs, a rural community, or the city, believe that their children deserve to learn in engaging and nurturing environments.

High-quality ECE programs provide this for many, but not all, of Pennsylvania’s working families. Fortunately, Zachary was able to enroll in my program, and I strongly believe that the early intervention and support he received prepared him for future success.

There are children, just like Zachary, who desperately need excellent early education and care, but are unable to access it due to growing staffing shortages and inadequate funding.

Don’t they deserve a chance to thrive as well?

Laura Smith is a teacher and center director at Capital Area Head Start in Harrisburg. She is also a Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow.

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