One of the biggest threats to the child care industry is losing qualified teachers due to low wages. In fact, last summer, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) surveyed 7,500 providers and found that more than half of the respondents are experiencing significant difficulties with recruiting and retaining staff now than before the COVID-19 pandemic. The study cited that compensation remains both the challenge and the solution for staffing recruitment and retention problems. It states that “78% of survey respondents identify wages as the leading recruitment challenge because they are so low that potential applicants either rely on pandemic unemployment or recognize they can make more money working just about anywhere else.” Similarly, 81% of respondents say that low wages are a key reason educators leave the field.

Paul Lazenby, Arkansas Early Childhood Association (AECA) executive director and T.E.A.C.H. state manager
Paul Lazenby, Arkansas Early Childhood Association (AECA) executive director and state manager of T.E.A.C.H.

So what does that mean for Arkansas? We talked to Paul Lazenby, Arkansas Early Childhood Association (AECA) executive director and T.E.A.C.H. state manager, about the Step Up to WAGE$ program they launched to help bridge the pay gap.

What is Step Up to WAGE$?
It is an education-based wage supplement initiative that pays biannual stipends to teaching staff serving ages birth to five years. It is a companion program to the T.E.A.C.H. (Teacher Education and Compensation Helps) Early Childhood® Scholarship Program that provides stipends based on the level of education and continuous work hours in the same child care program over a six-month certification period. The Step Up to WAGE$ annual stipend ranges from $500 to $6,000 based on level of education. Learn more about the stipend scale here.

Where does this funding come from?
Funding from the American Rescue Plan Act was used to launch this program. While it is a temporary fix, we are seeking permanent financing for the program to continue to raise wages and help our early childhood programs retain a qualified workforce.

Why is Step Up to WAGE$ so important?
The pandemic has shown a light on many of the imperfections of the early child care industry. But as the threat of the virus waned, the realization arose that the child care crisis isn’t just the virus – it’s also staffing. Recent cost of living increases, inflation, and staffing issues across all industries has led to a mass exodus of qualified early child care workers who realized they could make more money doing something else. That’s why AECA created the program to tackle staff retention and keep qualified people in our field. These educators deserve to be able to earn a living wage based on the qualifications that they’ve earned.

What else is AECA doing to support early childhood educators?
AECA is committed to addressing education and compensation by providing teachers with opportunities to earn the salaries they deserve. It is essential that we, as a state, realize the importance of early childhood education and genuinely value the work they are doing for infants and toddlers. A child’s brain is at its most flexible during the first five years of life, making this a critical period for learning and growth – which is why these educators deserve to be treated as professionals and not as babysitters.

In addition to Step up to WAGE$, AECA offers the T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood Scholarship Program, an evidence-based strategy that creates access by removing the financial barrier to higher education for teachers, directors, and family child care providers working with young children.

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