Starting Early, Starting Now: Investing in Teachers to Grow Child Care Quality


Starting Early, Starting Now: Investing in Teachers to Grow Child Care Quality explores an unresolved problem facing Wisconsin and our nation: How do we set young children on a positive life trajectory through quality early education while paying near poverty-level wages to those professionals who care for and teach them?

The circular problem in early child care

There’s a growing consensus among myriad stakeholders that high quality early education is vitally important. Without putting solutions on the table that support financing the early education system at a level where wages improve, however, we are caught circling around the issue of quality and not achieving the outcomes for children that we desire.

Key facts about wisconsin child care and beyond

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In 31 states, including WI, a year of child care costs more than annual tuition in college.

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In Wisconsin, the average turnover rate in the childcare industry is 21% compared to 8.1% for all other industries.

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36% child care workers in Wisconsin receive one or more forms of public assistance annually.

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85% of Americans prioritize giving children a strong start in life, second only to jobs and the economy.

High Demand for Quality Child Care+

Decades of research reveal that early brain development has lifelong consequences. More recently, economists have demonstrated how the investments we make now reap big returns in our future economy and social well-being.

$7 to $17 ROI

Early Learning Matters
Research is clear: early learning matters. Solid evidence in neuroscience informs us that early brain development plays a foundational role in future learning and overall well-being. (Source: Shonkoff, J.P. & Phillips, D.A. (2000) From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, Washington, DC: National Academy Press.)

Additionally, longitudinal studies (including the HighScope Perry Preschool, the Abecedarian Project, and the Chicago Parent-Child Centers) have found many long term positive outcomes are correlated with high-quality early learning experiences, including:

Long term positive outcomes

Inequities Among Early Childhood Educators+

Our current system of early education is fragmented and inequities abound across the three primary early education sectors: Child Care, Head Start and Public Pre-School (4K). The source of the inequities are largely explained by the amount of public investment each receives. Currently, child care, which serves the greatest numbers of children is the sector receiving the least public support, resulting in teachers being paid the lowest salaries.Early Childhood Workforce Salaries

As a state, Wisconsin spends significantly less for children infant to age 5 than it does for children ages 6-18. The investment per child ages 3-5 is more than 3 times the investment per child ages 0-2. The investment per child ages 6-18 is more than 12 times the investment per child ages 0-2.

Annual Federal & State Educational Expenditures

With a growing recognition of the importance of high-quality early education, we must face the reality that what we are currently offering young children is not good enough.

Parents' Financial Burden +

Parents can't pay more.

Can’t child care programs increase their fee structures so they can afford to hire and retain well-educated, experienced teachers and provide them with a fair wage?

That would be an obvious solution, but it is not viable. The cost of child care falls largely on the fees that parents can pay. The average young family cannot afford to pay $10,000 a year for child care for an infant, or if they have 2 children spending upwards of $18,000 a year.

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The cost of child care has risen in the U.S. more than 70% since 1985.

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Currently, a year of child care costs more than annual tuition in a Wisconsin college.

Paying the true cost of high-quality care is not a tenable solution for most families Therefore, quality care would then be limited to only the few who could afford it. Forcing the child care market to establish a price point based on what families can afford gives us what we have today: a system of care that is not reliably preparing all Wisconsin’s young children for success.

The High Cost of Quality Care+

Programs can't retain well-educated teachers.

In Wisconsin, implementation of a Quality Rating and Improvement System (YoungStar), has meant more teachers increasing their educational qualifications so programs can improve their quality level and associated star rating. 

Highest Educational level of teachers in group child care.

Higher star ratings, however, are tenuous because of current wage levels. The Cost Model shows that a child care program loses money incrementally as it moves up star levels.

In order to determine the likelihood of child care programs maintaining higher quality ratings (3, 4, and 5 stars), we have applied the Early Care and Education (ECE) Cost Model (Source: The Early Care and Education Cost Model is a tool developed by Anne Mitchell of the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance to help state leaders and ECE providers understand the costs of operating center-based early care and education programs at different levels of quality. The tool helps demonstrate how policy options related to child care subsidy and other early childhood funding streams, QRIS financial incentives, and the management of costs and revenues affect operations and profit/loss at the individual program level.) to Wisconsin’s child care system. Developed by the Alliance for Early Childhood Finance and used to study the cost of quality care in states across the nation, the Cost Model demonstrates the impact of a wide range of variables on a program’s bottom line.

Applying the model to a typical mid-size Wisconsin child care program, we learn that despite a rise in subsidy rates for low-income children to reward quality improvements, a 5-star program likely loses more than $1,800 per child per year.
A typical Wisconsin child care program TODAY

In the program of tomorrow (see below), the only variable that changed was the salary of the Lead Teachers. If we aspire to have Lead Teachers who are well-educated and committed to remaining in their programs, they must be paid commensurate with other Wisconsin workers with similar education. At the highest star level, all Lead Teachers are required to have an associate degree; at $37,620 their salaries are on par with the average of all Wisconsin workers with an associate degree.
A typical Wisconsin child care program TOMORROW

Both of these scenarios demonstrate an unsustainable business structure. It is unsustainable today, and it is even more unsustainable tomorrow.

A Revolving Door: Teacher Turnover+

Teachers leave for better paying jobs.

Teachers are key to achieving and sustaining quality. It is their consistent and nurturing relationships with children that lay the foundation for all future learning. And yet child care teachers leave their work at over twice the rate of the average Wisconsin worker.

Average turnover rates in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin’s most recent workforce study released in 2010, the two highest rated reasons for leaving employment in child care were: “better pay elsewhere,” followed by “unsatisfactory working conditions.” 
If I could change one thing about my job.
Quality suffers when well-educated teachers leave.

Society pays a cost for poor compensation.
When the child care workforce (estimated at 36,000 individuals in Wisconsin18) earn wages at or below the federal poverty level, there are negative effects. Among them:

  1. Need for public assistance: Currently, a child care teacher earning a salary of $23,000 is at 100% of the federal poverty level if supporting a family of four and at 150% of the federal poverty level if supporting a family of two. As a result, child care teachers often rely on food stamps, housing subsidies, low-income health care programs, and child care subsidies to make ends meet.
  2. Loss of tax revenue: When people earn more, they have more to give back. Low wage jobs in general do not contribute to a thriving economy.
  3. The cost of turnover to programs: Low wages result in high turnover. High turnover is expensive and detracts from child care quality improvement efforts. Costs related to turnover include direct costs such as the recruitment, selection, and training of new people. There are also indirect costs like increased workloads for remaining staff, overtime and reduced productivity associated with low employee morale, and the cost of lost opportunities (for example, less time available to engage families in the program or to adequately supervise staff). In addition, teacher vacancies may result in loss of revenue because parents may be reluctant to enroll their children in a classroom headed by a substitute teacher. 
Children Pay the Ultimate Price+

For thousands of Wisconsin children in child care, the cost of low compensation is measured by loss of consistent and trusting relationships due to teacher turnover. Turnover puts stress on children, creates a sense of loss for the children, impacts teaching practices, influences child outcomes, and strains the program resources overall. (Source: T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® National Center (2013) Turning Back the Tide of Teacher Turnover) In the extreme or for especially vulnerable children, it may even contribute to “toxic stress,” a condition that neuroscientists at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University use to describe the negative impact of prolonged stress on early brain development.

Education begins early and today’s children can’t wait.
We must invest now in teachers to grow child care quality.


Voices from the Field+

The impact of this disparity in public investment extends to the classroom as well. The following three vignettes portray a teacher with a bachelors degree working in different sectors of early education: a public school four-year-old kindergarten (4K) classroom, a Head Start program and a child care center. The 4K and Head Start settings are fully supported by public dollars; the child care setting reflects a program largely financed by private pay families. 

Listen as these vignettes reflect teachers doing very similar work with similar educational preparation, yet with unequal access to resources to support their work.

A Multi-Faceted Solution+

Solving the problem will not rest on a single solution and will require a variety of strategists working in concert.

We've demonstrated how the problem is circular and leads to an outcome no one wants: demand for high-quality child care is high because we know it positively influences outcomes for children; child care programs need more revenue to provide higher quality. Parents can’t pay any more. Without more money, the programs can’t afford to retain well-educated teachers. 

Circular problem with child care

Yet the teachers are key to achieving and sustaining the high-quality care that is in demand. With more money, programs will afford to retain well-educated teachers

Let’s look more closely at the three sources where more money could come from: parents, private investments, and public investments.


Parents are in the position to work in partnership with their child’s teachers and child care programs to help drive the public will and political pressure to create the investments we need.

It begins with parents becoming conscientious consumers-asking questions about the educational and experiential backgrounds of the teachers, asking how long teachers stay and what the program is doing to retain them, talking to their own employers about child care supports they need in order to bring the best to their jobs, joining with the child care workforce in sharing their stories about the impact of low compensation of teachers on their lives and the lives of children.

Engaged families are also likely to keep a child care program more accountable for the work environment that is created for staff. Until programs can afford to pay staff according to the value of their work, they are challenged to create an organizational climate where staff want to stay—a program that holds up its teachers in high esteem, engages teachers in decisions that impact their day-to-day lives, supports their on-going learning, and advocates for their well-being.

Private Investments: Philanthropy, Community Organizations and Business

While long-term systemic change cannot be achieved solely through investments from private sources, there are important roles for private investors. Philanthropic and community organizations have the potential to move the issue of compensation forward in the public discourse by convening stakeholders, funding promising research projects and pilot programs, and promoting legislation that addresses child care workforce needs.

The business community can support and promote such legislation as well. More importantly, businesses can invest their company resources to ensure high-quality child care for their employees. Onsite or near-site employer-sponsored child care may be an option for increasing the quality of care offered to children, especially when efforts are made to ensure that these centers hire qualified teachers and pay them fairly for their work. Another option for businesses is to provide family-friendly work policies and child care benefits to employees, for example, subsidizing enrollment slots in an existing community-based child care program that demonstrates high-quality care and education. 

Additionally, businesses and philanthropies in Wisconsin can align with the Celebrate Children Foundation (CCF), a pioneer in public-private partnerships in our state. CCF, as a partner in YoungStar, raises funds to help sustain quality improvement efforts of child care programs across Wisconsin.

Public Investment: Policymakers


Promising solutions to ensuring high-quality care with highly qualified and equitably compensated teachers must, in part, be driven by meaningful government involvement.

LOCALLY AND STATEWIDE, we start by building on the strengths of the current systems in place. Where communities have initiatives in place to support early education, new questions must be asked about how they can be expanded or modified to address low compensation and better retention of the workforce. At the state level, we can take a critical look at our current efforts to improve quality and consider how they can respond to the need for better compensation. These include: our YoungStar Quality Rating and Improvement System, the Wisconsin Shares Child Care Subsidy Program, the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood® WISCONSIN Scholarship Program, the REWARD Wisconsin Stipend Program, The Registry, and our professional development initiatives.

NATIONALLY, we must look at current and proposed child care initiatives and ask how we can build on them. For example, we could increase funds for quality set-asides within the Child Care and Development Block Grant and direct a portion of these set-asides specifically for improved compensation. We could look to new monies and designate funds specifically for compensation improvement strategies linked to increased credential or degree completion in an effort to raise the bar on quality.

ON BOTH THE STATE AND NATIONAL LEVEL, we are challenged to explore new policy initiatives as well. We can, for example, explore the use of the school funding formula as a mechanism for financing education from birth through grade 12. The delivery of early education relies on a strong system of child care to meet family needs and remain developmentally appropriate for children birth through age eight. This does not preclude a single financing mechanism for the entire educational system, beginning at birth. We could provide tax credits and other incentives to businesses that provide employer-sponsored high-quality child care, to parents who choose high-quality programs as determined by YoungStar, and/or to child care programs who raise their star ratings and provide a good work environment for staff. We could design and promote loan forgiveness programs that reward child care teachers for longevity in the field. We could develop a financial assistance program for families modeled after higher education in which loans and/or grants could be accessed based on financial need.

Our commitment to create good public policy and workable solutions will undoubtedly lead to more questions. These are a few to consider:

  • What is the cost to Wisconsin taxpayers to provide incremental or full financing of high-quality early learning for all of our young children, to include fair compensation for their teachers?
  • What is the true cost of high-quality early education?
  • How can we use the Early Care and Education Cost Model to support investments in the child care workforce?
  • How do we better understand staff turnover, monitor trends, and track where individuals go when they leave the field or move to other sectors within the field of early education?
  • Where are the gaps in data collection? What is needed to achieve a coordinated statewide early care and education data system that encompasses all sectors of early education?

We must remind ourselves that the stakes are high, the need is urgent, and the children are counting on us. Wisconsin has a dedicated early education workforce that is working hard to improve quality, advance their levels of education, and put new ideas into practice. We know that these efforts are paying off. To keep the momentum going, we must see solving the problem of poor compensation in light of our overarching goal: to take excellent care of our children and set them on a path of lifelong learning and discovery.

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