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Column: Invest in early childhood educators

Published: 10/25/2021 10:10:07 PM
Modified: 10/25/2021 10:10:11 PM

What if you could invest in one thing that, on its own, could create a ripple of positive change in systems that affect all of us?

That one thing is fair compensation for early childhood educators, who we know are the single most important ingredient in high-quality child care.

In Vermont and throughout the country, early childhood educators are envisioning a professional future. Several decades ago, nurses created the nursing profession, redefining themselves and their work as essential, specialized, respected, and worthy of adequate compensation. Early childhood education is now experiencing a similar transformation.

Why is this happening? Early childhood education college majors make the least after graduation of any other major — 11% of early childhood educators in Vermont make poverty wages. Every day, educators leave a field they love in order to work at big box stores where they make a higher hourly rate. These are people with specialized skills, not to mention their role as some of the most important people in our young children’s lives. But their skills and work are misunderstood and undervalued.

The early childhood education system is a system on which other systems are built.

Every working parent and employer in the state now knows that early childhood education is essential for parents to go to work. Public school systems know that kids who have high-quality early experiences filled with socialization and imaginative play come to school prepared to learn. So when we talk about investing in fair compensation for early childhood educators, we’re talking about a lever of change that improves systems across our state. We’re talking about:

■ Higher retention and recruitment rates for early childhood educators, because

they will be able to afford to accept the jobs they love and are trained to do.

■ More slots for children in early childhood education programs.

■ More families able to stay in or move to Vermont.

■ More parents — especially women — able to stay in or return to the workforce, at a time when there is both a labor shortage and a historic departure of women from the workforce.

■ Early educational experiences rich in play, discovery and building lifelong skills for our young children.

In our work to advance early childhood education as a profession, Vermont’s early childhood educators are coming to consensus to define what an early childhood educator is, and what an early childhood educator is accountable for.

The case for professional compensation requires shared accountability — among educators, professional preparation programs and public funding priorities. Early childhood educators must demonstrate they are prepared and skilled in their jobs.

Preparation programs must provide clear, accessible pathways. State and federal governments must prioritize funding for the profession to succeed. And, concurrent with building this new system, we must build a bridge for current educators, who have great experience and expertise, to transition to the profession.

The passage of H.171 is a critical step toward keeping our early childhood education system afloat — the system, remember, on which our families and economy rely. Soon, our state will need to figure out how to meet its commitment to make early childhood education more accessible and affordable for families and to make it an accessible and affordable career path for those dedicated, highly skilled people drawn to working with young children.

Our work to advance early childhood education as a profession centers those educators at the table where these decisions will be made. We believe that when early childhood educators are fairly and sustainably compensated through a professional system designed with their input, Vermont’s children, families, employers and economy will benefit as well.

Staci Otis, of Springfield, Vt., is an early childhood educator with a home program and serves on the Task Force for Advancing Early Childhood Education as a Profession in Vermont, a project of the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children ( Susan Titterton, of Elmore, Vt., is the project coordinator.

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