Opinion | D.C. recognizes how much early-childhood education matters

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

District policymakers have begun to recognize 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 made bold legislative moves and investments to ensure that early childhood educators in the district are well prepared and rewarded to meet the demands and joys of working with our youngest citizens. These moves counteract the historical racism that underpins care and education in the United States and the continued dismissal of early childhood educators as mere babysitters.

Like education from kindergarten to 12th grade, early childhood education supports the employability of families – but it does much more than that. Studies consistently show that toddlers who receive quality early childhood education develop rich vocabularies, have stronger language skills and perform better on school readiness tests in math and science. Long-term benefits for children living in underserved communities are even more significant, resulting in higher school graduation rates, college enrollments, and incomes. Even if a child experiences stress during the formative years, a quality, positive environment with skilled and supportive adults can mitigate the lingering effects.

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This science is why every child—not just those whose parents can afford it—should have equal access to a knowledgeable, competent, caring, and fairly remunerated early childhood educator who consciously creates developmental plans and rich experiences. For this reason, DC has also created a quality standard for educators to acquire skills and competencies through earning degrees and certificates, as part of an overall effort to reverse a history of under-supported, under-valued and under-funded early childhood education and educators. This story goes back centuries, when enslaved black women were forced to care for the plantation owners’ children while leaving their own children without care. After slavery, many black women continued to work as domestic help with few other opportunities—underpaid, overworked, and even excluded under the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Despite their indispensable status, as well as the increasing recognition of the skills, knowledge and dedication it takes, childcare providers have remained low-wage workers to this day. Early childhood educators make an average of about $15 an hour nationwide. Until recently, early childhood educators in DC earned an average of about $20, well below the $34 living wage and salary earned by public school teachers. In 2016, the DC Council supported the Office of the State Superintendent of Education’s (OSSE) decision to increase the qualification requirements for early childhood educators. A court has agreed that DC can enact certification requirements that all senior teachers in early childhood centers and homes have at least an associate’s degree, assistant teachers have a Child Development Associate’s certificate, and center directors have a bachelor’s degree.

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The good news is that early educators and principals are already on the way to meeting these needs. According to the OSSE, as of August, 78 percent of day-care center managers are meeting their new educational requirements. Primary and auxiliary educators are 40 percent and 34 percent, respectively, and 50 percent for home educators.

DC must continue to invest time and resources to ensure that pathways to advanced skills and education are easily and equitably accessible to educators in all settings. Now, for example, early childhood educators working in OSSE-licensed early childhood education programs from birth to age 5 are eligible for comprehensive scholarships to several local universities and staff development programs. Increased credentials – with the supports needed to get them – need not result in a decrease in supply. However, they must result in increased compensation. That’s why in 2021, with overwhelming public support, the DC Council unanimously passed the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund to increase the pay of those who work in licensed early childhood learning centers and homes.

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The lack of childcare opportunities stems from the poor wages of the workforce. We cannot solve this problem without recognizing and supporting early childhood educators for the highly qualified and knowledgeable professionals that they are – who should have the opportunity to work in a field with standards, credentials and remuneration as in other professional fields. We certainly cannot fix it by continuing to pit parents and educators against each other; both want the best for their children and neither can afford to fund the cost of quality child care and early childhood education alone.

Delivering quality comes at a cost – but the benefits are public, and so must the investment. DC and its residents recognize this and are taking steps to support the field to make early education a sustainable career choice and to provide quality options for children and families. Qualified educators help mold children to be compassionate, critical thinkers, problem solvers, environmentalists and civic leaders. After centuries of underestimating the profession and science of early childhood education, we stand at a crossroads with an opportunity to lay the foundations for a stronger future.

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