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Biden administration unveils ‘risky’ plan to boost salaries for early childhood educators

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A new plan from the Biden administration could significantly increase salaries for thousands of low-paid early childhood teachers caring for the country’s poorest children but might force some centers to reduce their enrollment.

The Health and Human Services agency’s proposed federal rule would require Head Start programs, which are struggling nationwide with staffing shortages, to raise teachers’ salaries to put them on par with local public schoolteachers, and to beef up benefits. The requirement could raise wages by as much as $10,000 for Head Start teachers over the next seven years, the agency estimates.

“Early educators make poverty wages in many places,” said Anna Markowitz, a University of California Los Angeles professor who has studied Head Start turnover and wages. “There are real consequences to these low wages.” She said “it’s unfortunate we had to wait for the turnover to become a major crisis.”

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Teacher in Cincinnati

Teacher Dawn Hill works with children during a preschool class at the Life Learning Center – Head Start, in Cincinnati on Nov. 21, 2023. A new plan from the Biden administration could significantly increase salaries for hundreds of low-paid early childhood teachers caring for the country’s poorest children but might also force some centers to cut enrollment. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

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Head Start teachers, many of whom are required to have a bachelor’s degree, make about $39,000 a year on average — far less than educators with similar credentials. Head Start teacher turnover has doubled over the last decade, with the federal government estimating 1 out of every 5 Head Start teachers left their classroom last year.

That’s created problems for the country’s youngest learners: Waitlists are ballooning and classrooms are closing. As many as 275,000 infants, toddlers and preschoolers are on waitlists nationwide, according to the National Head Start Association. The federally funded program is designed to give free education and care to infants, toddlers and preschoolers in locally run classrooms situated in public schools, community centers and private daycares or preschools. Taxpayers spend about $12 billion for Head Start to serve roughly 1 million children.

The number of kids in classrooms could shrink, though, if teacher salaries are raised and Congress doesn’t grant more money for the program. Biden asked Congress for an additional $1 billion for Head Start this year.

“As a result of these necessary reforms, one potential impact could be a reduction in Head Start slots in some programs in order to ensure the quality of services delivered,” the rule says.

In Cincinnati, Head Start should be able to help nearly 2,000 students but right now just over 1,500 kids are in classrooms because of staffing shortages, said Renee Daniel, vice president for early childhood education at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency.

Daniel was “jumping up and down” when she read the administration’s proposal to raise wages and add heartier benefits for Head Start staff. But without additional federal money, she would have to permanently cut as many as 800 seats to pay for those increases.

“Right now we’re suffering, and we’re not serving the children anyway, because we don’t have the staff,” Daniel said.

Daniel said in recent years, teachers have left to work in the health care sector or at Amazon. Daniel recently raised teacher salaries to start at $21 an hour. But to match local public school teacher salaries, pay will need to be about $33 per hour. The rule also suggests adding retirement benefits to teacher compensation, a new perk she’d have to offer.

“How am I going to create parity with that, if I don’t get any new money?” she asked. Daniel said she plans to weigh in on the proposed rule, with the federal government accepting comments on the plan until Jan. 19.

Health and Human Services is counting on Congress to provide additional money to Head Start, which is why it’s giving programs until 2031 to fully up their salaries to match local teacher pay. The administration also believes the program can “maintain its current capacity” with the wage increases, Katie Hamm, deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Early Childhood Development, said in an email.

“The proposed changes are necessary to stabilize the Head Start program, which is facing a severe workforce shortage because staff can earn higher wages from other employers,” Hamm said.

Plans to sharply increase teacher pay are already in the works for Head Start teachers in Los Angeles, said Michael Olenick, the president and CEO of Child Care Resource Center. The program should be able to put 3,000 kids in classrooms, but because of staffing shortages is only serving 2,500.

Olenick anticipates he’ll raise teacher, assistant and aide salaries soon to be more competitive with public school district and fast food restaurants, that are now required to pay a $20 minimum hourly wage in California.

“We have to get there next year,” he said. “This proposal would codify what we were anticipating we were going to have to do.”

If Head Start program nationwide raise their wages, their jobs could become coveted in communities where daycare workers and early childhood educators are meagerly paid, said Markowitz, the UCLA researcher. The average median wage for childcare workers sat at $13.71 per hour in May 2022, falling behind average pay for retail or food and beverage workers.

“It’s definitely going to have impacts throughout the sector,” Markowitz said. “Ideally, it’s going to be part of a broader sea change where child care educators are compensated at a fair level.”


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