Findings from the Washington Region ECE Workforce Network to inform the current child care crisis
Early care and education systems in the United States have been instable, at best, for decades. In fact, it is difficult to call it a true system. It is more a patchwork of different funding, regulations, and ideologies sewn together over the years. When a stitch breaks or a hole appears, we attempt to sew it shut, but this leaves significant weaknesses in the system’s structure. Educators and advocates have been warning about this instability for years.
Now, as we experience intersecting and simultaneous crises, the weaknesses of this system are torn wide open and on full display. We can no longer afford the current inadequate, patchwork system, and we will continue to undermine our economy if we continue to simply patch holes. This is the time to take the lessons learned from research and local collaboration, coupled with the expertise of educators and the needs of families, to implement policy and systems changes that will stabilize the early education system as a foundational and critical element of our economic infrastructure. In order for this new system to ensure high quality, accessible caregiving options for all families, we must ensure stronger investment in early childhood educators and the programs in which they teach.
The Burden of the System on Workers
In the DC metropolitan region, early childhood educators in 2016 earned $17,711 per year on average, with Latinx and Black early educators earning less per hour than their White counterparts. Health insurance coverage  is also inconsistent among early childhood educators. In 2016, only 52 percent of early childhood educators in the region had health insurance (either from their own employer or their spouse’s employer), and health benefit coverage varied, not surprisingly, across the system. For example, only 37 percent of family child care providers had health insurance that same year, compared to 60 percent of school-based early educators.
Public school educators are paid more and receive benefits as a result of significant government investment. However, we have not invested in the full early education workforce in the same way. The current system of early childhood education puts the financial burden on parents, who are forced to pay well beyond their means, in many cases, as well as the educators themselves who receive lower compensation to keep costs from skyrocketing beyond what families are currently paying.
At a rate of pay that effectively equals DC’s minimum wage, and with inconsistent access to benefits, the field of early childhood education was not a stable employment option prior to the current pandemic. Now, recent local and national surveys of early education programs estimate that in the current crisis, 20 to 50 percent of early education programs will close, if they have not already, without significant financial investment. This means that there will be less availability of programs for families, and less jobs available for early educators .
The Burden of the System of Families
Consider that, as previously mentioned, many early childhood educators earn wages that fall below 200 percent of the poverty line for a family of three, while at the same time, in 2017, the average annual cost of full-time, center-based infant care in Washington, DC was 89 percent of the median income of a family led by a single mother. Let me be plain: she can’t afford that. Now, with COVID-19, public health and safety require early care and education programs to increase expenses even more to account for tighter student-to-teacher ratios, increased and new cleaning supplies and methods, less sharing of supplies and equipment by students, potential construction costs needed to retrofit classrooms and upgrade HVAC systems, and much more.
While there are some programs that are publicly funded—including DC’s preK program, Early Head Start and Head Start, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, and subsidy programs—the vast majority of the early care and education system in the Washington, DC region, and nationally, is funded by families. So, what we have now is a situation where parents cannot pay any more, but programs need more money to ensure programs are safe for kids. This discrepancy is significant—estimated to total in the billions of dollars over multiple years—and, therefore, can only be remedied through increased public investment.
Increased Public Investment Is Needed
In the current state of the economy, with such high levels of unemployment, it is in our country’s best interest to invest strongly in early childhood education programs both to create stable jobs against the backdrop of high unemployment rates and to ensure that parents can get back to work as other jobs become available. As Fatima Goss Graves and Ai-jen Poo stated during The Women’s Foundation’s #AskHer webinar on August 27, 2020, “care work makes all other work possible.”
Advocates had pushed for $50 billion at the federal level to “bail out child care,” but that funding was not approved. Some states and localities have directed local funds to early care and education systems in their jurisdictions, but those funds will fall short of the level of investment needed. And because states need to balance their budgets, whereas the federal government does not, during a national economic crisis, it becomes increasingly necessary for states to look to the federal government for support.
What Philanthropy Can Do
Local philanthropy has been generous and responsive to the current crises. However, the volume of need is overwhelming, and local foundations and corporate philanthropy will not be able to fully fund every system. However, there are specific things that local philanthropy can do to support local early care and education systems.
First, funders can invest in early care and education programs directly or into pooled funder collaborative models that are providing funding and technical assistance to local programs to re-open or remain open. We do not have to see the dire closure rates that are predicted. Philanthropic dollars can ease that pain.
Second, funders can invest in policy advocacy and community organizing that will put early care and education workers front and center in policy and systems discussions to ultimately result in the changes and increased public investments needed. Some funders historically stay away from funding advocacy to avoid being associated with lobbying activities, but private foundations can fund 501(c)(3) organizations that engage in advocacy with general operating dollars. Lobbying does not have to be a concern.
Additionally, for funders who do not have a current early education or child care giving priority area, I encourage you to think about how your current giving priorities intersect with the challenges presented by the current early care and education crisis. Embedded in all of these issues is anti-poverty work, workforce development, education reform, family supports, mental health and well-being, movement building and community organizing, racial and gender justice, and much more.
The Women’s Foundation stands ready to help our funder colleagues and other community members who want to direct dollars to improve early care and education systems in our region. Reach out to us with questions about this piece or for advice on where you can invest in a local funders collaborative or advocacy coalition working on these issues at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on social media on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or LinkedIn.
About the Washington Region Early Childhood Education Workforce Network
Much of the points in this piece are supported by research conducted by the Washington Region Early Childhood Education Workforce Network (The Network), which has spent the past five years researching the current state of the early childhood education field locally and coordinating around policies and practices that will contribute to a more stable early education workforce. The Network launched in partnership with the National Academies of Medicine after its 2015 report on the early education workforce and is aligned with NAEYC’s Power to the Profession.
Research and Resources Produced
Throughout its five years, The Network produced valuable research to inform the field in the region, including:
- Pathways and Competencies for Early Education Professionals by School Readiness Consulting,
- A crosswalk of relevant state and national competencies sets by Allison Lutton,
- Early Childhood Educator Compensation in the Washington Region report by Urban Institute,
- Competency Assessments for Early Childhood Education Professionals by Strumpf Associates, and
- Career Pathway for Early Childhood Education Instructional Coaches and Curriculum Specialists by Strumpf Associates.
Next Steps for The Network
The Network is currently in the process of converting from a cross-sector, regional research and design entity to a regional early childhood education workforce advocacy collaborative. The collaborative will use the research and findings of The Network to inform its work and coordinate policy changes at the local and state levels to advance the early childhood education workforce in the region.
About the author – Martine Sadarangani Gordon is Vice President of Programs at Washington Area Women’s Foundation and manages the Early Care and Education Funders Collaborative.
 The research referenced did not include paid leave or other benefits in the compensation review
 Urban Institute. Early Childhood Educator Compensation in the Washington Region, April 2018 – https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/97676/early_childhood_educator_compensation_final_2.pdf
 National Women’s Law Center reports that nationally the child care industry lost one third of its workforce between February and April, 2020, and 95 percent of those who lost jobs were women. https://nwlc-ciw49tixgw5lbab.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/ChildCareWorkersFS.pdf