Maine Voices: Early Childhood Educators Need Our Urgent Support
Last August, my son’s child care program announced major staffing shortages. In response, they were to reduce care from five days a week to four and increase our rates.
The program worked without margin of error. We have just learned that another teacher is leaving due to family needs. This resulted in the consolidation of classes of different ages. Without relief, teachers are either exhausted or unable to take sick leave without closing classrooms. And the parents are stressed.
Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon story. Child care programs across the country are in crisis. Despite being indispensable to working families with young children, child care workers are chronically undervalued, underpaid and undersupported. As a result, parents routinely have to scramble to find care or take time off when child care programs reduce the level of care they can safely provide — or shut down altogether.
Data shows that families are spending 20% or more of their median family income on childcare, essentially taking care of paying for a second home. However, the real cost of care is still higher than parents can afford. Child care programs often run their infant and toddler classrooms at a loss, hoping to make up the difference through their pre-K programs.
It’s time to ask ourselves why we’ve allowed the child care system in America to become so broken. We expect high-quality, affordable education for children from K-12. Why, given the critical development that occurs in children during infancy, don’t we have the same expectations for families with children under 5?
Efforts to address this systemic problem have mostly been insufficient stopgap measures. In Maine, an early childhood workforce wage supplement program was created to address child care workforce challenges. While a step in the right direction, this program only gives early childhood educators $200 per month on top of a median annual salary of $29,450. With the rising cost of living in Maine, it’s a drop in the bucket. Additional funding will be available for licensed child care providers in Maine beginning in October, based on capacity, and is expected to end in May 2023. This will help, given that the programs do not provide care to full capacity, but we need a long-term financing solution.
At the federal level, Congress has a proposal to expand the block grant for child care and development. If passed, these programs should specifically invest in increasing the salaries of early childhood educators, allowing them to earn a living wage and build a well-respected career path. But after Congress failed to invest in child care through the Cut Inflation Act (despite evidence of overwhelming need), skepticism about the likelihood of action federal is justified.
As we head into the midterms, I want to hear more from the Maine candidates about their plans to expand support for early childhood educators and programs. I want to hear from unions and union rights advocates about the importance of child care for their members. And I want to hear from employers telling me how they are going to invest in their working families. Although not all employers have the financial means to provide on-site childcare, they do have options: they can offer childcare benefits; they can pool their resources with other businesses to establish cooperative child care centers on site or nearby; they can provide child care stabilization funds to neighborhood programs by securing spaces for their employees; and they can offer fee-based emergency child care through established providers.
Access to child care is a cross-sectoral issue that affects every working family I know. Early Childhood Educators are the foundation of our economy, enabling parents like me to work to support my own family – yet the educators caring for my child eight hours a day, five (now four) days a week are not able to save for retirement or build a lasting career.
They deserve better, working parents deserve better, and our children deserve better. It’s time to fix our child care system.