opinion | DC recognizes the importance of early childhood education

Kathy Hollowell-Makle is executive director of the District of Columbia Association for the Education of Young Children.

District policymakers are beginning to see what the science of early childhood education has been telling us for decades: early childhood education is the foundation of all learning for school and life.

The DC Council has taken bold legislative steps and made investments to ensure that early educators in the district are well prepared and compensated to meet the demands and joy of working with our youngest citizens. Those moves go against the historic racism that underlies healthcare and education in the United States, and the continued dismissal of early childhood educators as mere babysitters.

As with education from kindergarten to 12th grade, early childhood education supports families’ ability to work, but it also does much more. Studies consistently show that young children who receive high-quality early childhood education develop extensive vocabulary, have stronger language skills, and score better in math and science readiness assessments. The long-term benefits for children living in underserved communities are even greater, resulting in higher high school graduation rates, higher enrollments and incomes. Even when a child experiences stress in the early years, a high-quality, positive environment with competent and supportive adults can mitigate its lasting effects.

This science is why every child — not just those whose parents can afford it — should have equal access to a knowledgeable, competent, nurturing, fairly compensated early educator who intentionally creates developmental plans and rich experiences. It’s also why DC has created a quality standard for educators to gain skills and competencies through degrees and credentials as part of a comprehensive effort to reverse a history of supportive, undervalued, and underfunding of early childhood education and educators. . This history goes back centuries, when enslaved black women were forced to care for the children of plantation owners while leaving their own children without care. After slavery, with few other opportunities, many black women continued to work as domestic workers — underpaid, overworked, and excluded, even under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Despite their vital status and the increasing recognition of the skills, knowledge and commitment required to do so, childcare providers are still low-paid workers to this day. Early educators earn an average of about $15 per hour nationwide. Until recently, early educators in DC earned an average of about $20, well below the living housing wage of $34 and the level of compensation earned by public school teachers. In 2016, the DC Council supported the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) decision to increase diploma requirements for early educators. A court has agreed that DC can establish the qualification requirements that all lead teachers in early childhood education centers and homes have a minimum of an associate’s degree, assistant teachers have an associate degree certificate in child development, and center directors have a bachelor’s degree.

The good news is that early educators and directors are already on their way to meeting these requirements. According to OSSE, 78 percent of early childhood education center directors meet their new educational requirements by August. Executive and assistant educators are 40 percent and 34 percent, respectively, and 50 percent for home educators.

DC must continue to invest time and money to ensure that pathways to advanced credentials and education are easily and equitably accessible to educators in all environments. Now, for example, early educators working in birth to five early childhood education programs licensed by OSSE are eligible for comprehensive scholarships to several local universities and staff development programs. Increased credentials – with the support needed to obtain them – need not lead to a decrease in supply. They should, however, lead to a higher compensation. Therefore, with overwhelming public support, the DC Council unanimously adopted the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund in 2021 to increase compensation for those who work in accredited early childhood education centers and homes.

The lack of childcare stems from poor compensation of the workforce. We cannot solve that problem without recognizing and supporting early educators as the highly skilled and knowledgeable professionals that they are – who should have the opportunity to work in a field with standards, credentials and allowances as in other professional fields. We certainly cannot solve it by pitting parents and educators against each other; both want the best for children, and neither can afford to subsidize the cost of quality childcare and early childhood education on their own.

Delivering quality comes at a cost, but the benefits are public, and so are the investments. DC and its residents recognize this and are taking steps to support the field to make early childhood education a sustainable career choice and provide quality options for children and families. Qualified educators help shape children who are compassionate critical thinkers, problem solvers, environmental stewards, and civic minded. After centuries of undervaluing the profession and science of early childhood education, we stand at a crossroads with the opportunity to lay the groundwork for a stronger future.

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