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early educator teaches a group of students gathered around a table

Underfunding hinders the essential work of early educators

While their work is essential, and their impact felt throughout a community, there is little support for providers, families, or teachers to sustain quality early education.

Arguably one of the bedrocks of a thriving economy, early childhood development has been underfunded and under-resourced to our nation’s peril. While the benefits of high-quality child care, especially for marginalized children, are largely uncontested, early educators – more often than not – don’t make a living wage. While the recently passed American Rescue Plan provides immediate relief for programs and families impacted by COVID, the sector needs resources beyond a relief bill to sustain and expand essential early learning and care services long-term.

When families have access to quality early education, children achieve better outcomes in school. Parents are more productive in the workforce. And it more than pays for itself.

When families have access to quality early education, children achieve better outcomes in school and life. Parents are more productive in the workforce. And it more than pays for itself. The First Five Years Fund, which advocates for strong early education, says its research shows that “for every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education, society gains up to $7.30 in economic returns over the long-term.”

Despite the promising returns on investing in children, a 2020 study found that 18.3% of early educators in Missouri live in poverty – nearly double the rate for workers in general. In Kansas, the poverty rate for early childhood educators is 19.7%.

It’s not that childcare providers don’t want to pay their educators well. Deborah Mann, the executive director of Emmanuel Family & Child Development Center in Kansas City, Missouri, taps every resource she can find to pay competitive salaries. When she recently learned that a highly-credentialed K-12 teacher was seeking work in early education, she hired her at a salary comparable to what a public school would pay.

The teacher, Tammy Manges, works with 4- and 5-year-olds. “This is my preference,” she said. “I don’t have to reteach things that have been incorrectly taught. I get to witness the natural curiosity and the ‘wow.’ Plus, if you start them out with a really good foundation, they’re going to make it.”

Emmanuel has served low-income families in Kansas City since 1986. In May, it moved into its new, $10 million building, a rare investment in early education, but that’s what it took to bring badly needed resources to an area of Kansas City known as a child care desert.

Related: The Kauffman Quality Enhancement Grants support quality improvement efforts in early learning programs in Kansas City. The application deadline for the 2021 RFP was April 6.

The building’s opening took place without the fanfare that Mann had anticipated. Shutdowns related to COVID-19 decimated her enrollment last spring, as her parents lost jobs and kept their children at home to save on expenses. Without public funding for early education, parents have to rely on their own resources, even if they have federal subsidies. At the lowest point, only about 30 children came to school. About 180 students are currently enrolled, in a facility licensed for 370 seats.

Mann’s greatest fear was for her staff of about 50, but she obtained loans and was able to avoid layoffs. With few children in the building at first, Mann used the time for training.

“I’m big on professional development,” Mann said. That goes for herself. After 35 years of serving children and families, she recently earned a graduate degree in curriculum and instruction with a minor in counseling and psychology.

Highly trained workers with strong academic credentials are crucial to her work, which is to prepare young children from some of Kansas City’s most impoverished families to succeed in school and break out of cycles of poverty.

“When you are at the level of quality that we try to maintain, you can’t just hire any type of teacher,” Mann said.

This is my preference [working with 4- and 5-year-olds]; I don’t have to reteach things that have been incorrectly taught. I get to witness the natural curiosity and the ‘wow.’ Plus, if you start them out with a really good foundation, they’re going to make it.

— Tammy Manges

She requires her teachers to have a minimum of an associate’s degree in early childhood education or a related credential. Some have bachelor’s degrees. But with that, Mann said, “comes the expectation of higher pay.” Therein lies the challenge. 

Nearly all of Emmanuel’s families receive state and federal subsidies for tuition. But those funds don’t pay for livable salaries or benefits, and Mann and her team are always looking for more.

Emmanuel teacher Jeanetta Williams first contemplated a career in the military. Then one day a family friend asked her to help out at a home daycare. Williams has been caring for children now for 40 years.

“I didn’t even plan for this to be a career,” she said. “But once I got into it I started liking it. And then I started loving it. The children, they’re very interesting little people.”

The little people she’s currently in charge of are slumbering on mats as Williams tells her story. It’s naptime in the Ponies classroom at Emmanuel. For Williams, it’s a rare stretch of downtime in a workday that starts at 6 a.m. and stretches until 3 p.m., with a break for lunch.

In other classrooms of Emmanuel’s sunlit new building in a predominantly Black community in Kansas City, workers fuss over infants, as others encourage school-age children who are learning remotely while their schools are closed in the pandemic.

Across the state line in Kansas City, Kansas, Wanda Bibbs encounters the same staffing difficulties as executive director of the Angels of Grace Family Service Center. 

“By the time I take a staff person and put them through all the requirements, so we can be good teachers, the school district whisks them away, with benefits and fringes and things like that,” Bibbs said.

Staffers at Emmanuel and Angels of Grace faced the same fears everyone else did in the early days of the pandemic. They had little initial information about how the coronavirus spread and affected children and adults.

Angels of Grace closed for a couple of months. But even though children weren’t in class, the staff distributed food, diapers, and cleaning goods. Teachers prepared lesson kits so children could learn at home. The effects of losing child care for working families, especially moms, have shed a light on the significant contributions early caregivers make to families and the economy.

As she does even in non-pandemic times, Bibbs tapped a wide network of benefactors to help parents avoid evictions and utility disconnects.

“My mom would turn over about 50 times in her grave if she knew I was being a professional beggar,” she said. “I do whatever I have to do to help my families.”

At Emmanuel, teacher Jeanetta Williams said she misses seeing her children’s parents, who don’t come into the classroom during the pandemic.

“It’s been different,” she said.

But kids are kids and for Williams, the relationship never changes. “These are my babies,” she said. “Once they come in my door, they’re mine.”