Editor’s Note: This post is one in an ongoing series of posts dedicated to early education policy in Mississippi.
By Micayla Tatum I Director of Early Childhood Policy
A lack of wage parity is a longstanding issue in the early childhood profession. Childcare teachers, Head Start teachers, and public pre-K teachers have vastly different salaries and access to benefits. This blog post will focus on the disparities between childcare teachers and public pre-K teachers, but wage parity issues also affect Head Start teachers.1
The lack of wage parity between childcare teachers and public pre-K teachers is often explained as a result of the different credentials these teachers have, but childcare and public pre-K teachers have similar responsibilities, and in some cases, childcare teachers have longer hours and less support, in addition to less pay. The issue of wage parity is particularly problematic because our nation is in the midst of a care crisis: the country loses $122 billion a year to lost earnings, lower productivity rates, and less revenue because families cannot access affordable, stable, and high-quality infant-toddler care. Despite their high sticker prices, these programs operate on razor-thin profit margins that do not allow them to pay their teachers like the professionals they are. This leads to a teacher shortage which exacerbates the issue of families being able to access care.
Mississippi is a part of this care crisis, with our economy losing $659 million a year. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government recognized the importance of care to families and the economy by infusing the industry with three different rounds of federal funds. Unfortunately, these funds have already been spent or, in the case of the American Rescue Plan Act Discretionary Awards, must be spent by September 2024. Although beneficial while available, these were temporary funds for an entrenched problem. To find a long-term solution, Mississippi must find a way to increase wages in early education settings to ensure that we have a stable workforce to support families.
COVID-19 Relief Fund
In October 2022, the Mississippi Department of Human Services (MDHS) announced that they had $199.7 million in American Rescue Plan Discretionary Award funds to spend by 2024, with $83.4 million for “direct incentives to childcare teachers,” though they did not outline how they would grant this money. The Department could take a cue from Kentucky, who encouraged providers to use their funds to increase workers’ hourly wages, or follow the direction of states like North Carolina and Connecticut, which offered an additional percentage of grant funds to providers who focused on increasing compensation.2
While some childcare teachers may have already received short-term wage increases and bonuses provided by the previous American Rescue Plan grants, those short-term awards did not actually create wage parity between early education teachers; rather these funds temporarily bolstered childcare teachers’ salaries who, on average, made $19,490 per year according to the Mississippi Department of Economic Security’s 2022 Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates Report. Their incredibly low wages explain why early educators face significantly higher poverty rates than their K-12 peers. To address such systemic poverty, we need more than finite and temporary discretionary funds, but so long as we have access to federal funds we should use them to increase wages and support retention for early education teachers. And as we utilize these funds we should also be thinking of new ways to bring early education teachers to parity with their public school counterparts.
There are several levels of pay Mississippi could pursue for childcare teachers: parity, partial parity, or sub-parity. Each type of pay would help childcare teachers take a step closer to wage parity with their public school counterparts. Full compensation parity would mean complete alignment between early education teachers’ wages and benefits. An infant teacher would not receive less than a fifth grade teacher, unless there were differences in education or experience level.3 Infant teachers would also receive the same benefits and professional development resources. Partial parity would mean that some elements of the wages or benefits would be the same, but the number and type of benefits would vary. For example, early education teachers may have the same starting salary but not be able to access equivalent retirement benefits or a salary schedule as their public school counterparts under this form of parity. The final form of wage parity is sub-parity. Sub-parity would mean that early education teachers’ salaries and benefits would be similar but not equivalent in all aspects. For instance, teachers may have access to the same benefits and professional development resources, but their salaries, while the same on average, would not be prorated for additional days and hours worked, and they may not have access to a salary schedule.
We recommend beginning with a cost study to determine which avenue is most feasible to pursue and what it would cost. As we expand benefits and compensation, we must do so in a sustainable manner, so the feasibility of the initial plan is important. Policies in other states can provide ideas about how to do this. Washington, for instance, pursued partial parity and covered its early education teachers’ health premiums if they were not Medicaid eligible. Louisiana and Nebraska offer tax credits to their early education teachers as a way to achieve sub-parity.
Potential Effects of Achieving Parity
In addition to more research into the costs of each type of parity, we also need to examine the potential effects of infusing state resources into private businesses. Such a policy is not entirely unprecedented, as the model of federal investments into family farms shows. Like early learning, farms were struggling to remain financially viable yet provided vital goods for the public. Beginning in the 20th century, family farms faced the rising costs of technological advances which they needed to grow food more efficiently and compete with their fellow farmers. These small businesses also faced a shifting economy throughout the 20th century. In response to these shifts in farming and the economy, federal investments into family farms began during the Great Depression with the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933. The act controlled supply and created high price supports for farms. In 1965 under the Food and Agricultural Act, direct income payments to farmers joined the battery of support to family farms.4
These supports had complicated ramifications. Direct income payments helped slow the movement of farmers from the sector into other industries, but high price supports and supply control led to further crop specialization on farms. Investing directly into childcare centers will also bring with it positives and negatives. History teaches us that we can expect direct payments that support wages to keep childcare teachers in their positions, but we also know we could encounter additional effects from government support of early education, such as consolidation of businesses, a long-running issue faced by small and mid-sized family farms.
We can anticipate changes to these businesses’ expectations and relationships to the state as we work to achieve some form of wage parity. As we move forward, we must think through the implications of state investment.
We are facing a unique time where we have the funds to help create a more sustainable workforce, but we cannot live in the present and forget to plan for the future. As we move forward, it is vital that we work together to find a solution because our families and our economy depend on a stable early education workforce. Since the federal government has failed to take action, states are now in the driver’s seat. They must make sure families have what they need to work and to ensure the creation of strong educational foundations for children.
1 Head Start teachers are paid through federal funds and reaching wage parity will look different for them than it will look different for them than it will childcare teachers.
2 Please note that ARPA stabilization grant funds were administered in Mississippi under the Child Care Strong grants. These grants are separate from the discretionary award money that MDHS has until September 2024 to spend. The other states listed used these tactics as part of their stabilization grants, but these tactics could be useful for spending discretionary funds in Mississippi.
3 We recognize there are vast differences in education levels between early education teachers and K-12 teachers. Full compensation parity is aspirational and far removed from the current reality in our state, but that does not mean we should not be working to create more sustainable salaries.
4 Please note this represents a federal investment into a private industry. We are not suggesting that we approach achieving wage parity for childcare teachers in exactly the same manner, but rather that we learn from past mistakes and successes. Mississippi also does not have access to the same revenue and resources as the federal government. This is meant to be an informative comparison and not a pedantic one.