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Mel Gravely

Federal Government Steps Up Efforts to Increase Wages for Early Childhood Education Workforce

head start workforce compensationWe cannot continue to expect early educators to remain in these critical roles only to earn poverty wages.

Those are the words of January Contreras, Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), in a recent announcement for the new National Early Care and Education Workforce Center (more on that later).  We appreciate Contreras’ candor in this moment.  She says that the federal government recognizes the problems that working families are facing in finding quality child care, and admits that persistent low wages are “one of the reasons why programs are having trouble recruiting and retaining early educators.”

It does appear that we have reached a critical tipping point for the early childhood education sector. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates that the child care sector has lost 7.5% of its workforce over the course of the pandemic. And anecdotally, I’ve heard many directors and staff lament that there just doesn’t seem to be as many young people choosing it as a career as there used to be.

One of our most-read blogs of 2022 was titled “Compensating Head Start Employees,” where we discussed how agencies could use COVID-19 relief funds to increase wages or provide bonuses in Head Start to help recruit desperately-needed employees. At the time, the Office of Head Start (OHS) championed that strategy as an important stop gap until we could figure out a long-term solution or until there were “additional appropriations from Congress.”

Well, that blog was in August, and even though that was only 6 months ago, a lot has changed since then. The early childhood education sector is still facing a crisis with lack of available workers, but steps are being taken at the federal level to help address that shortage, particularly when it comes to workforce compensation.

First, is the newly formed National Early Care and Education Workforce Center that we mentioned above.  The center, funded by a $30 million grant from ACF, is a 5-year research and technical assistance initiative that will focus on identifying the best ways to support the early care and education workforce, a large focus of which will be workforce compensation.

While good news, unfortunately the center will take time to get up and running, and the benefits of its research won’t become apparent for several years.

Luckily, both Congress and the Biden Administration have stepped up with those much-needed “additional appropriations” that many groups said they needed.

In January of this year, the Administration for ACF announced $300 million in new funding for Preschool Development Grants Birth through Five (PDG B-5). According to the press release, these funds, awarded to state-level agencies, will provide the “critical resources to support the early care and education system that families rely on, including the early childhood workforce that is that backbone of our economy and communities across the country.”

Indeed, even before the additional funding for the PDG B-5 program was announced, the Office of Early Childhood Development at the ACF released a memo encouraging PDG B-5 grantees to redistribute existing funding to increase wages and shore up their workforce asap.

“We strongly encourage recipients to take immediate action in addressing the ongoing shortage in the ECE workforce,” they wrote last September. “Grant recipients may now consider redistributing grant funds to… address the major areas contributing to the workforce shortage (recruitment, retention, and staff compensation).”

Beyond those grants, the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) program received a $1.85 billion annual increase in the latest appropriations bill passed in December.  These funds can be used by states to “improve compensation for the child care workforce.”  These funds are important because unlike COVID-19 relief funds through the American Rescue Plan, this increase will be allotted annually.

And last but certainly not least, is a $960 million increase in annual funding for Head Start. While these funds haven’t been distributed yet, and not all will be allocated for employee compensation, Head Start has made it clear that the most effective way to stabilize the Head Start workforce is to permanently increase wages.  Let’s hope that some of these new funds will be directed to that purpose.

For more on all the federal initiatives that will eventually make their way down to the local level, the Office of Early Childhood Development put together a document called “Resources to Support Early Care and Education Workforce.” Check it out and let us know your thoughts in the comments!


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