Staffing and compensation are at the heart of building a better early childhood system

Pre K students Malakai Ruth , Maverick McClelland and Liam Vardales , right help Sheila Chambers carry the Kindness Quilt made of drawings of what the preschoolers thought kindness looked like during a presentation at the Pre K class at the YMCA Innovation Hub in Lakeland Fl. Monday Oct. 25 2021.Early Learning Coalition is teaching pre-K students about social and emotional skills to stop bullying.  ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER102521 Ep Kind 1 News

When COVID-19 hit, the work of being a child-care teacher—already challenging and low paying—became even more demanding, dangerous, and emotionally challenging. Prior to the pandemic, teachers left child-care sites at extremely high rates (more than twice as high as those of K-12 teachers), and the pandemic has exacerbated this issue. Many media accounts document child-care sites’ loss of staff and difficulty hiring, particularly as wages in other sectors rise. Recent U.S. jobs data show that the child-care sector is still about 10% smaller than prior to the pandemic.

These staffing challenges have real implications for young children, who benefit from consistent relationships with the adults in their lives, and for the working families who rely on child care to do their jobs. In a recent survey of thousands of child-care providers, one-third reported having longer waitlists or being unable to open classrooms due to staffing challenges and one-quarter had to reduce their operating hours. Early in the pandemic, centers struggled to fill slots as families pulled their children out of care; more recently, parents returning to work are finding shut down centers and no slots available. These narratives are alarming, but because of a lack of systematic data in child care, it is unclear both how truly widespread these challenges are and how different conditions are compared to pre-pandemic times.

The American Rescue Plan and other federal COVID-19 relief funds included unprecedented investments in early care and education, acknowledging the need to address staffing issues. Many states are now experimenting with strategies to allocate these funds to teachers. Evaluating these initiatives provides a unique opportunity to both collect systematic child-care data to inform and refine efforts, and to learn how financial supports can best stabilize this workforce.

In Louisiana, our longtime partners in the early childhood office at the Louisiana Department of Education are allocating $27 million in federal relief dollars to create Teacher Support Grants (TSG)—a fund that aims to get money to teachers through stipends, bonuses, or wage supplements, and to ultimately reduce turnover. Our team is tracking the success of TSGs through a set of key staffing and compensation questions embedded in the application that child-care providers must submit to obtain grant funds. Because all publicly funded programs are eligible for the grant, and the vast majority apply, the application data provide for the first time a comprehensive look at child-care staffing across an entire state. Through multiple rounds of application data we can document whether the workforce is indeed stabilizing.

Here, we share findings from the first round of application data, collected from 673 publicly funded child-care sites (representing about 80% of all Louisiana sites) in summer 2021. We have three key findings.

First, teacher turnover and difficulties hiring are widespread. More than 70% of Louisiana child-care sites reported having at least one teacher vacancy. On average, leaders reported that about one in five (18%) positions at their site were currently unfilled; 35% reported that more than a quarter of their positions remained unfilled (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Percent of teaching positions currently vacant (by child-care site)

Figure 1 Percent of teaching positions currently vacant by child-care site

Nearly all leaders (88%) reported that, between January and July of 2021, losing teachers posed a challenge. Filling vacancies proved particularly hard: 95% of leaders indicated finding or hiring replacement teachers was difficult and more than 70% said it was very difficult. Without pre-pandemic data, we cannot say how much these alarming rates reflect COVID-19-specific challenges as compared to long-standing staffing struggles. Either way, however, rates are high.

Figure 2: Child-care site leaders’ responses to questions about staffing challenges

Figure 2 Child-care site leaders’ responses to questions about staffing challenges.

Second, leaders reported that staffing challenges impacted teachers, children, and families. In our data, 84% of site leaders reported asking staff to work more hours or take on additional roles to make up for staffing shortages (Figure 3). Three-quarters worried that staffing issues negatively affected children at their site. Almost half (46%) indicated that they served fewer children or turned away families due to staffing challenges, and nearly two-thirds (63%) indicated they currently had a waitlist.

In an open-ended response, one site leader explained, “Teacher turnover has created many challenges for us. … Losing teachers and finding quality candidates that actually want to work has been our biggest challenge. This … hurts our current employees, hurts our enrollment, and also can really negatively affect the children [who] need stability and routine.”

Figure 3: Child-care site leaders’ responses to questions about the impact of staffing challenges on children and site operations

Figure 3 Child-care site leaders’ responses to questions about the impact of staffing

Third, leaders reported low wages as a key driver of staffing challenges. Many leaders wrote about their inability to offer competitive wages. Across Louisiana, the median wage for lead teachers was $10 per hour; for assistant teachers it was $9. Access to benefits was also low: 79% of leaders reported they do not provide health-insurance benefits to any teachers.

Leaders recognized the need for additional compensation: “I need to be able to pay my teachers a livable wage. It’s not fair to them to work so hard but be compensated so little. Many of them are becoming tired of the small checks and are talking about finding other work. Their jobs are important, we are the reason parents are able to go to work or to school.”

However, they expressed concern about using short-term relief funds to address this long-standing problem. One leader commented, “I keep feeling like [the teachers] deserve more money, but I am so afraid to not be able to continue to afford it.” Another explained, “I did not give raises because I did not know how long I would be able to pay them that amount. … We cannot take a raise back.”

Investments in Stabilizing the Workforce are Investments in High-Quality Early Education

Although many media accounts have documented child-care staffing challenges, Louisiana’s statewide data provide the most comprehensive view to date.

The picture is dismal.

Nearly all leaders reported struggling to hire and retain teachers, and the resulting instability has negative implications for teachers, children, and families—and ultimately the U.S. economy.

Leaders reported that they could not compete with higher-wage, lower-stress jobs. While most of the leaders in our data (82%) did offer bonuses or wage increases in the six months leading up to the survey, they were not enough to combat the staffing crisis. Earmarked compensation initiatives like the TSG will likely help stabilize the field in the short term, but they are not sufficient to overcome a longtime funding problem.

While it seems obvious that we cannot build high-quality early learning systems if we cannot recruit, retain, and adequately compensate early educators, most early-childhood-education policy solutions fail to address the true costs of staffing. The Build Back Better Framework proposes sweeping compensation reform. It re-casts a living wage and salary ladder for early educators as a core cost for providing high-quality care, and requires subsidy reimbursement to reflect this full cost of care. By expanding access to subsidies, it also provides a more stable revenue stream. If passed, this investment would revolutionize compensation and have a dramatic impact on early-childhood-education workforce stability.