Hawaii should invest in early childhood care and an educational workforce

Goff Justice announces a $20 million expansion of nursing education programs

Educators are leaving the profession at an alarming rate because they are underpaid and undervalued.

The workforce crisis in early childhood education is real and needs attention. As a preschool principal, I know this firsthand.

When I post ads for childcare jobs, responses are few and far between. This should worry everyone in Hawaii.

When a position is not filled, the consequence is that classes will be closed. This despite the existence of a demand for good care. There are currently enough regulated seats to serve about 55% of Hawaii’s children ages 3 to 4 and less than 10% of our children under 3.

We should start offering solutions, like House Bell 547which invests in early childhood care and the education workforce.

Early childhood educators are leaving the profession at an alarming rate because they are underpaid and feel undervalued.

Did you know that the average wage for an early childhood care and education specialist in Hawaii is between $13 and $17 an hour? Center managers and other service providers cannot raise these wages without passing the cost on to families who are also struggling to pay preschool tuition.

In addition to being paid a much lower living wage, early childhood care and education professionals are often not given the due respect. They are often called “childcare workers,” which gives no respect to the important work they do.

These workers are, in fact, educators and specialized professionals, and must have degrees in early childhood education and development, take continuing education classes, and meet experience requirements.

Low wages and lack of respect in early childhood education programs have not only driven teachers out of the field, they are discouraging the next generation of professionals. Why would anyone want a degree, work full days with energetic youngsters and do lesson plans in their spare time when other jobs that don’t require a higher education and are less strenuous pay more?

We do this work because we are called to do it. We have a passion for teaching and working with families.

But, it is increasingly difficult to continue the passion alone. Passion does not pay the bills.

Caring for environments

The hard working professionals who take care of babies from 6 weeks to 5 years old are an integral part of the community. They support a large percentage of the workforce by ensuring that parents can go to work knowing their children are safe in nurturing environments with professionals who are skilled, knowledgeable and educated in child development. When parents can go to work, our business and the greater economy can grow.

The contribution of early childhood care and education professionals goes beyond simply enabling parents to work. Studies continue to show that the early childhood years are the most important years of learning. A person’s brain never develops faster than it did in the first five years of life. So the professionals who educate and care for our littlest Kiki are setting her up for a lifetime of success.

The need for a well-qualified, compensated and subsidized workforce has come into sharper focus three years into the pandemic. We are seeing more behavioral problems, struggles with social emotional skills, and a decrease in self-regulation skills, which may be attributed to years of isolation during the pandemic.

Research to help our teachers change course after the pandemic is limited because they are still in their infancy and will take years to complete. Right now, we are doing everything we can to meet the children wherever they are and provide care, support and education.

The pressure of day-to-day responsibility for highly specialized and demanding work combined with pandemic pressures over the past three years and for the foreseeable future is contributing to an unprecedented fatigue of our sector.

It is increasingly difficult to continue the passion alone.

Between low pay, lack of respect, and extreme burnout, it’s no wonder so many early childhood education professionals are leaving or considering leaving the field. It’s just too much for too little. The expectations of schools, parents and leaders continue to increase while compensation and resources remain the same.

This is a crisis that society must pay attention to. If we lose talented teachers, who will replace them?

During the pandemic, we have been valued and respected for the work we do. We have been a source of harmony for children and families. We’ve helped essential workers get to their jobs.

We continued to work through the most terrifying times in our collective history. We were seen as vital to the economy.

Has all of that been forgotten?

It’s time to take care of this crisis and work together to find solutions to support a profession vital to improving societies and economies.

If not now, who is going to take care of children when we can neither attract nor retain our workforce? Who will support working families who need quality care for their children?

The issues facing this field are vast and bound to collapse. Now is the time to consider these issues and support existing bills, such as HB 547, moving through the legislature that addresses early childhood education and its workforce so we can continue to serve children and families.