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D.C. Has an Excellent Model for Strengthening Child Care. The City May Do Away With It.

Supplementing early childhood educators’ wages has gone a long way toward addressing a longtime crisis. Even if the program doesn’t survive the city’s budget process, it should remain an example for local, state and federal efforts.

Three adults and four children interacting in a daycare.
Early childhood care and education has long been a sector in crisis, with conditions worsening substantially during the pandemic. The people who care for and teach America’s young children face low pay, high turnover and racial inequities in professional opportunities and compensation.

One jurisdiction — Washington, D.C. — led the way in addressing these challenges when it launched its Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund in 2021. The fund provided annual payments of $14,000 for full-time lead teachers and $10,000 for assistant teachers in its first two years. It has since shifted to a salary schedule based on the one for D.C. public school teachers, with the wage supplements funded through a tax on individuals who earn more than $250,000 a year. In addition, the fund expanded access to affordable health care for early educators and their families.

The Pay Equity Fund has become a beacon for local, state and federal efforts to improve how early educators are supported and valued. It has also provided opportunities to study policy implementation and impact. The country stood to benefit from D.C.’s innovation, which makes it all the more concerning that the fund has been cut from Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed fiscal 2025 budget and may not be fully restored by the City Council.

Two years of data from our team at the Urban Institute document the extent to which the Pay Equity Fund’s wage supplements have improved early educators’ financial well-being. It increased lead teachers’ wages by 37 percent and assistant teachers’ wages by 31 percent. Nearly all payment recipients we surveyed said the fund helped them pay for essentials like housing, utilities and food and allowed them to pay off debts and cover emergency expenses. For 69 percent of early educators, the fund allowed them to save for the future — in some cases for the first time in their lives.

These payments are making it possible for early educators to stay in their profession, stabilizing child care in D.C. at a time when many other regions are experiencing shortages. In our surveys, 62 percent of early educators agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that they plan to continue working in D.C. child care longer than previously expected because of Pay Equity Fund payments. Further, the fund supports hiring and retention, especially of highly qualified educators. Many child-care center directors reported that the payments have made it easier to attract “qualified” new teachers to their facilities (49 percent) and that the payments have made it easier to retain “their best” teachers (61 percent).

Although the Early Childhood Educator Pay Equity Fund was the first of its kind, there is every reason to expect that the next generation of child-care compensation boosts will have the same impact. That’s important because a stable, high-quality early educator workforce empowers families to work. Parents often stress about child care, and they see the Pay Equity Fund as an investment in their own well-being. As one parent we interviewed put it, “We’re paying people to care for our children, but [the work they do] cares for me, and cares for my wife also, and it’s not something they really advertise — the peace of mind value — but it’s really, really important.”

The shock from eliminating or reducing the D.C. fund could spill over to the housing market and local business revenues, and it would be likely to lead early educators to leave their jobs, dissuade new educators from entering the field and diminish care quality. Unstable or inaccessible child-care options could lead families to reduce their work hours, lower their productivity, pay less in income tax or even exit the workforce, undermining economic stability.

Our team will continue to document learnings from the Pay Equity Fund, whether or not it persists past this budget cycle, but the fund’s current precarity demonstrates the challenges inherent in policy innovation — even when it addresses historic and ongoing crises. Until recently, D.C. stood alone in valuing early educators. Now the District and leaders across the country have the opportunity to prove their commitment and demonstrate the importance of building on evidence and acting on good economic sense.

Erica Greenberg is a senior fellow and PK–12 team lead in the Urban Institute’s Center on Education Data and Policy. Her research spans early childhood and K-12 education with a focus on public pre-kindergarten. Heather Sandstrom is a senior fellow in the Urban Institute’s Center on Labor, Human Services and Population. Her research focuses on early childhood development and public programs that support the well-being of low-income children and families.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
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