We need to care for those who care for our children. This was a common theme heard at the Thrive! Living Wage Coalition’s community education event on Oct. 6.
Forty-nine individuals from around the county met to learn about the successes and challenges of our early childhood care and education workforce. As a parent, I understand the critical role that quality early education played in my children’s readiness for elementary school. I have read the research that proclaims the return on investment for each dollar spent on quality care during the first five years of life in terms of increasing lifetime educational achievement and economic contribution.
I was slow to join this choir, coming to the early childhood field after a decade of working in adolescent mental health and seeing firsthand the negative outcomes for young adults who have a difficult start in life. Over the years, I have heard parents and elementary teachers praise quality early education experiences for many benefits, including promoting concentration, socialization, cooperation, resilience and a lifelong enthusiasm for learning.
The early education teachers of our community make an enormous impact on each child they care for and are responsible for developing the nurturing relationships that facilitate critical early learning and healthy physical, mental and social development.
Who are these remarkable people? In La Plata County, this workforce is approximately 250 individuals strong, educating and caring for more than 1,080 children. These teachers, assistants and aides are employed by 41 early care centers, preschools and licensed family homes. They are experienced and well-educated – nearly 70 percent possess a college degree and they average 11 years of experience in the early education field.
Despite these qualifications, they are dreadfully underpaid. The average annual income of a full-time early education teacher is $26,624, less than 55 percent of the living wage for a parent with one child residing in La Plata County. Nearly 25 percent of them across the region report having a second or third job to make ends meet, and many qualify for public assistance programs such as child care subsidies and food stamps for their own children.
Limited affordable housing options, an above-average cost of living and low compensation has resulted in many early education teachers leaving the field or the community. One community member asked the obvious question: Why not just raise the pay to the living wage across the entire sector? And therein lies the rub. Personnel costs are the single largest expense in an early education center’s budget. The only source of earned income a center generates is paid through tuition collected from families that enroll their children in care.
When a center increases teacher wages, the tuition cost for families also increases. In La Plata County, annual child care tuition can reach $12,000 for infant care and $9,000 for preschool. This can be an unmanageable expense for families that spend as much as 40 percent of their household income on child care. Yet, beyond the healthy start each family wants for a child, there is a crucial practical role that early childhood care and education plays in our community, that of workforce development. In a community with nearly 5,400 family households with children, quality care and education for young children is essential to maintain a diverse and strong economy.
How can our community sustain this valuable service and improve compensation for the workforce that cares for our children? The conversation started at the Oct. 6 workshop was an important first step and one that will continue in our community. To participate in the ongoing community conversation, consider joining the Child Care Crisis Committee hosted by Libby Culver (firstname.lastname@example.org). Attendees at the event proposed many innovative strategies including several that require generating third party investment in early care and education in La Plata County.
One mechanism for this investment already exists in Colorado – the Colorado Child Care Contribution Tax Credit (scheduled to sunset in 2019). Taxpayers who make a qualifying monetary contribution to promote child care in Colorado may claim an income tax credit of 50 percent of the total qualifying contribution. Contributions must be made for an eligible child care purpose to qualify for the credit. See colorado.gov/pacific/tax/income-tax-credits for information.
Supporting the needs of the child care workforce is one of the goals of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County. The council strives to bring comprehensive, high-quality services to children and their families.
To join this team of early childhood advocates, visit ecclaplata.org.
To learn more about the Thrive! Living Wage Coalition and join this growing movement to ensure all workers in La Plata County are paid a living wage, visit thrivelaplata.org.
Heather Hawk is the Executive Director of the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County. Reach her at email@example.com.