Stabilizing child care requires more than emergency COVID-19 relief funds

Lydia Stephens, owner/director of Montessori Life preschool, second from right, works with teacher Brandi Crawford, right, with the children at the preschool in Macedonia.Bob Montessory Life 4

In a recent statement, President Joe Biden called out the “acute, immediate child care crisis in America.” His American Rescue Plan includes $25 billion earmarked as an emergency stabilization fund for child-care providers. This investment, alongside an additional $15 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program and an expanded tax credit, has been welcomed by advocates who have seen the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the child-care sector. For many child-care providers, COVID-19 has led to large enrollment drops, heightened costs, and staffing challenges. For some, it has meant closure. Emergency stabilization funds to mitigate the pandemic’s immediate damage are an important first step. But returning to a pre-coronavirus baseline would not be enough to create a stable child-care sector that adequately supports kids and families.

Prior to the pandemic, there was growing recognition that child-care teachers—many of whom are women of color—face wages and working conditions that undermine the provision of reliable care and education. Recent national data suggest that child-care workers make, on average, about $10 an hour, and that about half are in families receiving means-tested public support (e.g., EITC, SNAP, TANF, or Medicaid/CHIP). It is impossible to create stable, high-quality systems for families when educators are facing such pronounced financial challenges. These conditions contribute to high levels of stress and depression among early educators and to high rates of teacher turnover, which have negative implications for young children who benefit from stable, engaging relationships with caregivers.

Although existing accounts suggest high levels of turnover among child-care teachers, our understanding of the scope of the problem has been severely limited by the lack of consistently collected data on this workforce. Historically, no state has systematically tracked teacher employment across all publicly funded early childhood education (ECE) sectors, and turnover data even within any single sector has been limited. States do not track, for example, how often child-care teachers leave their sites.

Through our longtime research-policy partnership with the Louisiana Department of Education, we built the first statewide dataset that tracks turnover among lead teachers working in publicly funded, center-based child-care, Head Start, and school-based pre-K settings. In our new study, we tracked roughly 5,900 ECE teachers employed in 1,500 publicly funded programs during the 2017-18 academic year. We described how many of these teachers were no longer at their program by the following school year.

Our results highlight four striking patterns:

First, pre-pandemic turnover was extremely high. Over one-third of teachers observed in 2017-18 were not teaching at the same center in the following year (see Figure 1). These rates are nearly three times as high as those reported for Louisiana’s K-12 teachers.

F1 Early childhood teacher turnover in Louisiana

Second, turnover rates were much higher in child-care settings than in Head Start or school-based pre-K. Nearly half (46%) of child-care teachers in 2017-18 left their centers by 2018-19, whereas turnover rates in schools were considerably lower, though still troubling (26%). The sector-level differences are perhaps unsurprising given differences in pay and working conditions by program type. In Louisiana, school-based pre-K teachers are required to hold educational credentials similar to elementary school teachers and are paid on the same pay scale. On average, child-care teachers have lower levels of education and are paid much less. In surveys of ECE teachers in two large Louisiana parishes in the fall of 2018, child-care teachers reported earning less than $20,000 a year, whereas their counterparts in schools reported earning twice that. This disparity is echoed in differences in teacher well-being. In the same survey data, 56% of child-care teachers were classified as food insecure (compared to 43% of school-based teachers); 56% reported not having enough money for medical expenses (compared to 29% of school-based teachers); and nearly 30% reported not having enough money for rent (compared to about 10% of school-based teachers).

Third, teachers of very young children (toddlers, 15 to 36 months old) were more likely to leave their program than teachers of older children (preschoolers, 3 to 5 years old). Nearly half of toddler teachers turned over during the study period as compared to 31% of preschool teachers. This is explained in part by the sector differences highlighted above: In Louisiana, child-care centers serve toddlers, and school-based programs do not. However, even within the child-care sector, we find that toddler teachers leave at higher rates than teachers of older children (not shown), a concerning pattern given the particular importance of stability for very young children.

Fourth, when teachers leave their positions, very few become lead teachers at a different publicly funded program the following year. We estimated that 37% of teachers left their program between 2017-18 and 2018-19. Of those who left, 86% were not observed teaching in a different program the next year. Put another way, 32% of teachers in 2017-18 left lead teaching in ECE entirely (not shown). This high rate of exits is markedly different than in K-12, where about half of teachers leaving their schools move to another teaching position.

COVID-19 has sharply underscored the essential role that child care plays in the lives of young children, working families, and the economy. There is widespread support for rescuing this hard-hit sector, but insufficient attention to the reality that rescue funds are not enough to ensure stable, developmentally sensitive care moving forward. The precarity of early educators’ financial and emotional well-being, and the corresponding high level of year-to-year turnover, not only disrupts children’s learning but destabilizes ECE programs and generates substantial recruiting, hiring, and training costs.

While the turnover rates observed in Louisiana may not generalize nationwide, the low wages and benefits for this workforce do. Emergency funding to ensure that centers can keep their doors open and deal with current staffing challenges is an important first step, but meaningfully stabilizing ECE will take larger, long-term public investments. There are many innovative strategies that states and communities are trying to professionalize and stabilize the early childhood workforce, but truly addressing this issue will require substantial and long-term public investments explicitly tied to increasing wages and benefits for the ECE educators who are the foundation of this system.