Teacher doing an activity with students in early learning classroom

Celebrating Early Care & Learning Providers As We Return to School

This back-to-school season, Mercedes Mondragón, policy manager, reflects on the critical contributions of child care providers.

Mercedes Mondragón September 15, 2023
  • Policy and Systems
  • Blog

Late summer marks the beginning of the return-to-school season for K-12 teachers across the country. Yet within the early learning field, child care educators work year-round providing care for our youngest learners while earning low wages and working under difficult conditions.

According to 2021 survey data from the Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies, the median wage for early childhood assistant teachers was $12.00 per hour and for early childhood lead teachers, the median wage was $14.29.1 In terms of benefits, only approximately half of centers are able to offer health insurance.1 Not only is compensation abysmally low, but child care teachers work long hours to reflect the unique care schedules of families.

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Our child care workforce is greatly undervalued despite the critical role they play in our children’s and families’ lives. Since their work is rarely acknowledged or appreciated, it has become increasingly challenging to recruit and retain early educators. Less staff means fewer open classrooms and more difficulty finding care. This is especially true for infant and toddler slots since infant-toddler teachers are paid the least in their field, despite working under the most difficult conditions.  

As a nation, we have failed to recognize the importance of the early childhood workforce—public investment for early care and education is embarrassingly low. This has occurred despite research showing that young children’s brains develop fastest during the birth to age 5 period and that having access to a quality program can help boost their outcomes later in life. Having a nurturing, safe, and healthy place to learn during the early years can help close the opportunity gap and give all children the ability to thrive.

Our early childhood workforce arrives at work every day to provide care for our youngest and most vulnerable students, simply because of their passion for working with young children. As a society, our failure to acknowledge child care staff as essential further hurts not only the field, but children and families who rely on care. This back-to-school season let’s make sure we recognize and thank the early childhood teachers that allow parents and caregivers to go to work while their child(ren) thrive at their early learning program. 

Norton, Jordan, Rachel Salrin, Corinne Lee, and Joellyn Whitehead. n.d. Illinois Salary and Staffing Survey of Licensed Child Care Facilities Fiscal Year 2021. Springfield, IL: Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies.


About the Author

Mercedes Mondragon_600x600

Mercedes Mondragón

Policy Manager, Illinois Policy

Mercedes Mondragón is a Policy Manager on the Illinois Policy team at Start Early, where she focuses on advocating for improvements to the child care system and alleviating issues faced by the early childhood workforce.

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