This is the true cost of low compensation for early childhood educators | Opinion

It’s empty classrooms, overworked teachers, and mothers leaving the workforce

Baby toddler early development. Wooden stack and count rainbow colors learning game. Child learn colors and numbers

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By Lyssa Horvath

Throughout the pandemic, I worked remotely bouncing a fresh baby-boy on my knee. In 2021, I faced a different dilemma: how will I balance an energetic toddler and work?

My husband and I sat down and looked at our options. We didn’t have many. It was unrealistic to continue remote work with a toddler; we also quickly learned that finding a spot for him in a childcare center that offered high-quality care at a price we could afford and located near our home or work was not realistic. So, I became part of the 43% of highly-qualified women who leave the workforce after giving birth, and left my job to raise my son.

On one of our outings, we visited a friend and former coworker who is now the director of a preschool program where we met teaching. The pleasantries lasted a few minutes before the conversation became more serious. She needed a PreK teacher – she wanted me – and could I start tomorrow?

This urgency is felt by child care centers across Pennsylvania;  according to a 2023 Start Strong PA survey, 84% of Pennsylvania child care centers report a staffing crisis. I accepted the position, excited by the idea that I would be returning (and now taking my son) to the place where my career started: a small, play-based preschool in center city Philadelphia.

There are currently 3,980 open staff positions in early learning centers across Pennsylvania, leaving 38,321 children on waitlists.  The staffing crisis at my preschool was not solved by hiring me, and we needed a second teacher in my classroom. Other highly-qualified educators at our center, the assistants of other classrooms, the office manager (a former preschool teacher), and often the director herself were in my classroom to maintain state-mandated ratios.

Early childhood educators are not only responsible for teaching children; we also oversee their   health, safety, and care. Unlike our K-12 counterparts who often have cafeteria staff, janitorial staff, nurses, and counselors, we serve meals, screen for illnesses, and bandage wounds.

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

The work of early childhood educators is difficult and nuanced, and the turnover rate reflects the complexity and demands of that work.

In Pennsylvania, 30% of early childhood educators leave the profession annually, a much higher turnover rate than that of our K-12 counterparts. Low pay is the most common reason for their departure.

A recent survey found that the average early childhood teacher earns $12.43 per hour, leaving Pennsylvania early childhood educators in poverty – unless their spouse has a high-paying job. 

I know, because I have since left this small play-based school that I loved and joined a larger charter network that is able to pay nearly double what I was making before.

Teachers cannot provide high-quality experiences for children if they are plagued with the stress of working a second job, worrying about their financial security, or having to come to work sick. Early childhood educators need to be paid a family-thriving wage to stay in the profession.

As our legislators work this month to approve the state budget for 2023-24, they must prioritize early childhood education.

A recent Teach Plus report based on focus groups with early childhood education made several recommendations for this year’s budget, including prioritizing increasing compensation for early childhood educators through a $430 million investment to implement a child care teacher wage scale.

In the long term, state leaders should work toward achieving income parity between early childhood and K-12 educators and making early childhood education funding more stable, predictable, and sustainable through grant payments and cost-of-care models.  

Having affordable, reliable, and high-quality childcare keeps parents in the workforce, strengthens our economy, and prepares students for a lifetime of learning.

Whether you are a parent, an employer, or simply a concerned citizen, please contact your state legislators to ask them to support the workforce behind the workforce.

Early childhood educators all over the state are busy helping children develop physically, mentally, and emotionally.  We need your help in making sure early childhood educators are compensated well enough to stay, so that our high-quality pre-K and child care programs can remain open and we can continue serving the children and families in our communities. 

Lyssa Horvath is a 2022-2023 Teach Plus Pennsylvania Policy Fellow and is a pre-K teacher in Philadelphia.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.