High-quality early child care requires fair teacher pay supported through public investment High-quality early child care requires fair teacher pay supported through public investment

Sacrificing quality to increase affordability is not the answer Sacrificing quality to increase affordability is not the answer

January 30, 2020

When people ask me why it’s difficult to find high-quality early child care, one of the first things I bring up is how quality is too expensive for most parents. As a result, providers often don’t charge enough and parents don’t pay enough to cover the true cost of quality care.

If they did, early child care educators would be making more than the poverty-level wages many earn. But most parents would also be pushed out of a child care market that’s already difficult to afford. The result is what we see today: a market that allows substandard early child care and education to proliferate. Just ask the experts who rate the majority of child care as fair.

In this mostly private market, charging less than what high quality truly costs has been the pathway to increasing access to early child care, but it’s a dead end. Without intervention, the tenuous balance between rate-setting for parents and low wages for workers will continue, pushing down quality and the overall supply of early child care.

Deregulation can erode quality and is not the way to make care more affordable

If you’re an early child care educator in New England, chances are good that you make under $26,000 annually, the median annual salary in 2018. That makes it tremendously difficult for providers to find and keep credentialed employees for this labor-intensive work. And consider that parents in the region are, on average, paying between $4 and $8 per hour for in-home or center-based care that meets minimum licensing standards. What level of quality can we reasonably expect for such low rates?

But charging parents more to raise quality by adequately compensating providers and teachers is impossible in a mostly private market. It would make the care unaffordable for many who are struggling to pay and raise even higher barriers for those already priced out of the child care market.

It would also exacerbate the problems families and communities face when a parent’s ability to work is compromised, or children are forced into poor quality care settings that negatively affect their development.

Some suggest affordability could improve if costly mandates like high staff-to-child ratios are weakened, allowing facilities to lower rates by taking more children and paying fewer educators. But even with current mandates, quality of care is uneven and unacceptably low in many cases. We don’t want to further lower the bar for minimum quality, just to unleash a supply of affordable care. This will also do nothing to make higher quality more achievable.

This is a serious problem. But there is a possible solution: infusing more public dollars into the private market to support higher teacher pay and the true cost of quality early education.

We need to see early child care as a public good and be willing to pay for it

We are witness to the positive effects of better compensation for educators in the public education system. We tend to see education of children ages 5 and older as a “public good,” worthy of support with public funding, so the system pays more and gets a higher credentialed workforce with lower turnover (though quality can vary in public education, as well). Why isn’t education for younger children also viewed as a public good, instead of as a private matter for parents to figure out and pay for on their own?

More public funding at the early child care level is clearly needed. But to date, resistance to it has been too great to overcome.

Increasing government spending is contentious for a number of reasons. As mentioned, many don’t view early child care as a public good. What’s more, workers who care for and educate young children are disproportionately lower-income and women of color, which introduces the possibility of gender, class, and racial biases against investing heavily in this segment of the workforce. Women of color make up nearly 40 percent of the center- and home-based early childhood workforce. By comparison, more than 80 percent of the K-12 teaching workforce is white.

Reluctance to better fund early child care is also rooted in longstanding and complex societal views toward working mothers. For instance, according to the 2018 General Social Survey, a nationally representative repeated cross-sectional survey, 24 percent of respondents agreed that, “It is much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.”

This is a minority viewpoint and an improvement from 10 years ago, when 35 percent of respondents agreed. But these ripples of opposition may help explain the historical precedent for underfunding support for women in the workforce.

Our investments should align with the reality that most parents are working

Values debates aside, mothers in our society are working more and more – 72 percent of married women with children at home are in the labor force. The number rises to 77 percent for unmarried women. Meanwhile, 93 percent of married men with children and 89 percent of unmarried men with children are in the labor force.

This is our reality. Don’t we want to ensure working parents are supported, and that children cared for during working hours by someone other than a parent receive the highest quality care possible?

No one wins if substandard quality is seen as the answer to increasing the supply of affordable child care. The only way to improve quality is to embrace early child care as a public good and fund it accordingly. The balance between adequate teacher pay and affordable rates for parents is, in fact, out of balance. Children and families are paying the price.

Sarah Savage is a senior policy analyst in the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s Regional & Community Outreach department. She leads the department’s Early Child Care initiative and has convened meetings in each New England state to hear from working parents about how child care impacts employment. 

Check out a recent media interview Savage gave about how early child care shortcomings affect labor force participation.


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