Providence Journal Commentary: Pumping up aid for early educators will pay off for RI

By Mary Varr, Guest columnist

There has been increased attention on child care since the pandemic began in 2020, and while this attention has brought about positive changes in state and federal support, it has only touched the tip of the bigger issues at play in the field of early childhood education.

So what are these bigger issues? The first is low wages. It has been clearly documented that child care educators do not have pay parity for the highly skilled work they do for our youngest learners. The funding model, or lack thereof, makes it impossible for child care programs, which are small businesses, to pay a worthy wage to experienced, degreed early childhood teachers. And if this doesn’t alarm you, it should. A child’s brain is developing at the highest rate in his/her lifetime during the early years. This is when brain connections form, social-emotional learning develops, and the road to executive function begins.

Parents, who are a child’s first teacher work with early educators, who play a key role in providing nurturing environments that support optimum growth and minimal adverse childhood experiences. For parents who need to work to support their family, they must be given high quality choices for child care. But that is sadly not the reality of our child care system today.

Child care programs across the country continue to shut down because they cannot find qualified staff to work for wages that won’t allow them to support their own families. Decades ago a two-parent family could afford to have one parent at home and it was a luxury to have two incomes. Today, it is a necessity.

The second issue is antiquated policies that are barriers to minorities and women of color to achieving higher education. Most colleges and universities do not offer courses at hours and days that are convenient for those working a 40-hour work week. They do not offer enough courses for those whose first language is not English, and they do not offer the opportunity for students to teach in an early childhood center where they may work. The State of Rhode Island doesn’t even have an Infant-Toddler credential, which is required by the Office of Head Start for early Head Start teaching staff who don’t have a college degree or a child development associate credential.

Our young children deserve to have people who look like them and speak their language in their classrooms, and these early educators deserve to have the opportunity to increase their skills and education. For years, we have in effect locked out highly skilled, nurturing early educators from the opportunity to get a degree. I believe we would not be in this predicament if we had recognized the importance of early education pathways and pay parity for those wanting to work in the field.

Which brings me to the third issue. Early childhood education is a highly skilled field and not a training ground for public schools. The early childhood education field requires certain skills that a teacher in elementary school doesn’t have. Just as a professor in higher education doesn’t have the same set of skills that a high school or middle school teacher has. It is past time that the public, our policy makers and our higher education institutions recognize the importance of early childhood education as a field, a small business and an important part of a child’s development.

Now is the time for all Rhode Islanders to do something positive for our children and families: that means making state budget investments and developing policies that support our critical early education workforce.

Mary Varr is executive director at Woonsocket Head Start Child Development Association, a member of the Right from the Start Campaign, and a board member of the National Head Start Association.