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Advance the Early Care and Education Profession 

In This Section: 

  • Secure public investment specifically for educators’ compensation and benefits.
  • Build educators’ power through a unified voice.
  • Establish policies tailored to support home-based child care providers’ practice and well-being, including family child care (FCC) providers and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) care providers.
  • Invest in educators’ career and educational advancement, especially for educators of color and multilingual educators.

Having access to child care—even if it is equitable access—could still lead to inequitable outcomes unless all children are served by diverse, competent, well-prepared, and well-compensated early care and education (ECE) professionals. 

The ECE field has always been carried by underpaid early childhood educators, largely Black and Brown women, who work with minimal benefits. During the height of the pandemic, many of these educators were forced to make the impossible choice between maintaining their livelihood or protecting their health. We cannot continue to ask more of these professionals without a strategy that more directly raises the standard for compensation and provides funding to meet that standard. Many states took seriously the pandemic-era rhetoric that “early childhood educators are essential” and took action in four critical areas:

Secure public investment specifically for educators’ compensation and benefits.

During the pandemic, we witnessed a mass exodus of early childhood educators. Many chose not to return because of a tight job market. 

Recognizing low compensation as the core challenge, many states took unprecedented actions that can inform future efforts to bring about transformational change. These approaches include adequate and systemic funding for wage increases, health care and other benefits, salary parity with early elementary teachers, and tax credits.

The District of Columbia raised local revenue to create the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund. In 2022 and 2023, It provided annual bonuses of up to $14,000 for each early childhood educator in licensed programs. Starting in fall 2023, programs that opt into a new salary scale began to receive funding from the Pay Equity Fund to increase their employees’ salaries through their paychecks. The Fund also provides premium-free health care coverage through HealthCare4ChildCare.

North Carolina also used its federal relief funds to incentivize providers to adopt a salary scale that increased compensation for early childhood educators.

In 2023, Minnesota appropriated more than $300 million for the FY24-25 biennium for a permanent Great Start Compensation Support fund that would provide licensed ECE programs, including family child care, about $400 per month per full-time employee to help increase salaries and/or provide benefits.

Illinois’ FY24 budget includes $100 million for a new Child Care Workforce Compensation Contracts, which are available to programs that serve subsidized children and will commit to raising their wage floor to a higher level.

In its FY22-23 budget, Washington State appropriated $30 million of federal relief funds to establish a Licensed Childcare Worker Premium Assistance Program to help early childhood educators in licensed programs access affordable health insurance. Educators under 300 percent of poverty level and who don’t qualify for Medicaid are eligible.

A number of states, including Kentucky, Oklahoma, Maine, Arizona, Washington State, and Rhode Island made staff in licensed early care and education programs eligible for child care subsidies. In 2023, Iowa announced a one-year pilot program to allow child care workers to apply for subsidy, regardless of family income.1

In 2023, unionized family child care providers in California secured funding for a collective bargaining agreement that included a recurring $100 million for health care and $80 million for a retirement fund.

In 2021, Vermont passed H171, which created a new loan repayment program that provides up to $4,000 annually to reduce student debt for early childhood educators who commit to working in a regulated program in the state for 12 months.

The District of Columbia is leading the nation in advancing the early care and education workforce by securing public investment to compensate educators adequately and fairly, on par with public school teachers in the District.

In June of 2018, the DC Council passed major legislation into law called the Birth-to-Three for All DC Act, which provided a blueprint to make significant improvements over several years to the District’s early childhood education system. Enactment of this legislation represented years of learning, planning, and collaboration among advocates, early educators, health providers, and policymakers.

A key component of this law focuses on creating a fair, competitive salary scale and linking subsidy rates to it to attract and retain high-quality early educators. The legislation requires that the salary scale provides compensation for early educators that is equivalent to public school teachers with similar education and experience. In 2021, after heavy advocacy from the Under 3 DC coalition – a diverse coalition of over 50 organizations, parents, and educators, and whose leadership includes Alliance-ally DC Action— and partner coalitions advocating for social issues in the District, the DC Council voted to establish a funding source for early educator compensation by modestly raising the personal income tax rate for high-income residents. The DC Council established an Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund to house the funds generated from the increased income tax on a non-lapsing basis. An Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force (“task force”) was created to determine how best to implement these funds so that early educators would see the most benefit. This fourteen-member task force was made of a range of diverse voices representing the sector.

In January 2022, the task force provided its recommendations to the mayor and DC Council, with the goal of advancing racial and gender justice through fair compensation for early childhood educators. These recommendations were based on the deep experience and knowledge of its members (many of whom were Under 3 DC members or were part of child care associations), feedback from over twenty individuals who testified at a public roundtable, and upon consultation with national and local experts. The task force recommended a two-phased plan to support the compensation increases. The first phase included one simple, short-term funding delivery mechanism that would allocate supplemental payments to eligible early educators in 2022 through an intermediary organization. This would be followed by a more complex and robust long-term mechanism that would include implementation of a new salary scale.

In February 2022, the DC Council unanimously voted to incorporate some of the task force’s recommendations and the Office of the State Superintendent for Education was given the reins to begin implementing the program. The state agency selected AidKit as its intermediary to provide technical assistance and administer the first phase of increased compensation through the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund. The first phase included pay supplements between $5,000-$14,000 depending on role and hours regularly worked, paid directly from the intermediary to educators. Funds were distributed over one lump sum in FY 2022 and four quarterly payments in FY 2023. This pay supplement is the first step toward creating a new, permanent early educator compensation scale to establish minimum salaries for all eligible early educators. Starting in October 2023, DC will shift to permanent compensation increases that will be paid through employers as part of teachers’ regular paychecks and based on a new salary scale. Educators in participating ECE programs should see salary increases in December 2023 or January 2024. And because the authorizing legislation for the Pay Equity Fund links ECE salaries to the public school teachers’ union contract, which has a cost-of-living increase of about 3 percent every year, early childhood educators’ pay will also be similarly adjusted each year.  

Advocacy efforts to increase the personal income tax on DC’s wealthiest earners to support its early childhood workforce is the result of years of advocacy by Under 3 DC in partnership with justice-oriented tax, homelessness, and social policy advocacy organizations and coalitions. The Under 3 DC coalition previously noted that the lessons from this monumental win are multi-fold:

    • This work could not have been possible without the support and voice of early learning educators.
    • Advocates cannot ignore equity issues and must center their work around the people who are often excluded. This will not always be simple, but it’s critical to building truly equitable systems.
    • Wherever possible, collaborate rather than compete for funds against other groups advocating for funding for important, values-aligned policy, and work together to keep your joint asks simple, clear, and focused.
    • Generate principles around raising revenue with partners/your coalition, review them together often, and find champions aligned with these principles.

For more about DC’s Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund, see DC Action’s brief.

Build educators’ power through a unified voice.

The crisis in early care and education led to frustration and anger among early childhood educators. In some states, organizers, advocates, and educators themselves channeled those feelings to create more power through a unified voice.

In Connecticut, grassroots organizations, early childhood educators, and advocates came together to organize a “Morning Without Child Care” where ECE programs opened late as part of a coordinated effort to bring attention to the country’s broken child care system. The event, which included 10 rallies across the state, generated extensive media coverage and policymaker engagement, and eventually led to five new bills for child care funding that added $184 million in new funding to the FY23 budget.  

In 2022 in Washington, Child Care Aware of Washington facilitated a process, informed by Liberatory Design, in which a diverse group of 34 early childhood educators led the design of policy proposals to increase compensation and provide universal access to families, with support from policy advocates and analysts at the periphery. This effort led to funding for the Department of Children, Youth, and Families to work with this design team and other stakeholders to create implementation plans for switching to a cost of quality subsidy reimbursement model, and using that system to provide universal access to early care and education and living wages for providers.

Establish policies tailored to support home-based child care providers’ practice and well-being, including family child care (FCC) providers and family, friend, and neighbor (FFN) care providers.

Home-based providers are an indispensable part of the ECE system, and the pandemic shined a spotlight on their unique value. States began to enact policies that spoke more to the specific needs, interests, and cultures of licensed family child care providers or to relatives and friends providing care.

In 2021, Colorado passed HB1222, which reduces burdensome regulations for FCC providers by treating them as residences for regulations such as zoning, fire, safety, and building codes. In the following year, Colorado passed SB213, which appropriated almost $100 million of federal relief funds for child care, $7.5 million of which is dedicated to the training and support of FFN care providers. The state also established FFN support programs, including an advisory group that will make recommendations to the Department of Early Childhood.

Legislation in Arkansas clarified that a local authority shall treat a child care family home as residential property use, and provides that the authority shall not impose any additional regulations on these homes that do not apply to other residential properties or stricter requirements than those in the Fire Prevention Code. Montana similarly passed legislation in 2023 to define home-based child care as a residential use of property.

In 2023, Minnesota established a grant program dedicated to FFN providers. While initial funding will be supported by American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars, the state has allocated $3 million recurring funding starting in FY25.

In 2023, Washington State passed HB1199, which prohibits homeowners associations, including condo associations, to “prohibit, unreasonably restrict, or limit the use of a unit” as a licensed family child care business.

In 2023, Oregon passed SB599, which prohibits owners of rental properties from prohibiting tenants from using the property as a licensed FCC home.

The District of Columbia passed legislation in 2023 that prohibits condo associations from banning the operations of licensed family child care programs in their buildings.

Oklahoma enacted HB 2452, which prohibits municipal governments from enacting additional regulations on family child care homes that have already undergone the state’s licensing process.

In 2023, Vermont passed Act 76, which increases reimbursement rate for home-based providers to bring it closer to parity with that paid to center-based programs.

Invest in educators’ career and educational advancement, especially for educators of color and multilingual educators.

Retention, a perennial challenge in the field, became an even more urgent priority for providers during the pandemic. In addition to increasing compensation, states also invested in more inclusive and equitable pathways for career and educational advancement for early childhood educators.

In 2021, Illinois passed HB2878 and launched the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity, which is charged to develop and implement a systemic strategy to help incumbent early childhood educators, especially those from BIPOC and low-income communities, to attain higher degrees and credentials. The Consortium of more than 60 2-year and 4-year higher education institutions worked together to increase access to coursework, facilitate articulation of credits, standardize the process for awarding credit for prior learning, provide scholarships, and recruit navigators, coaches, and mentors to help students succeed. Since the initiative began, enrollment in ECE higher education programs has increased by almost 18 percent.2

In Colorado, Career Advance Colorado was created in 2023 with passage of HB1246. It fully covers enrollment costs for training programs in “sectors with significant workforce shortages,” including child care and early learning.

During the pandemic, many states invested in registered apprenticeship programs as a strategy to support retention, increase compensation, and help incumbent early childhood educators advance in their careers. For example, Kentucky invested in apprenticeship programs for both educators and program administrators. California’s Early Care and Education Pathways to Success initiative is piloting an apprenticeship pathway for family child care providers.

1. State Session Round Up: Summer 2023, Diane Girouard, Child Care Aware of America, September 2023
2. First Annual Report, Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity, August 2023