Child care has become increasingly unaffordable for all families in the United States. Teachers face particular caregiving challenges—something that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief. Virtual learning and quarantine protocols, while necessary to keep students and staff safe, have forced many teachers to simultaneously teach students from home and care for their own young children. At a time of heightened teacher shortages and low teacher wages, educators caring for their own young children need access to affordable child care. High-quality child care also has substantial and numerous benefits for child development, which helps students come to school ready to learn, allowing teachers to focus on delivering engaging instruction. To meet the caregiving needs of the K-12 educator workforce and the developmental needs of the youngest students, the United States needs sustained, significant federal investments in the accessibility and affordability of high-quality child care.
Teachers need affordable access to high-quality child care
Teachers’ salaries are lower than those of other similarly educated professionals—often too low to meet their families’ needs, forcing many teachers to work additional jobs. The modest pay of teachers discourages people from entering or staying in the profession and is an especially significant barrier for the recruitment and retention of teachers of color, who are more likely to take on greater student loan debt than white teachers. Moreover, paraeducators and other education support professionals—who are more likely to be people of color—make even less than teachers. In fact, a recent analysis found that education support professionals in all but one state do not make a living wage.
While teacher salaries have been largely stagnant for more than 20 years, child care costs have increased dramatically, making this population especially likely to be affected by unaffordable, inaccessible child care options. Child care currently costs families with at least one child under age 5 an average of 13 percent of their income annually, nearly double what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers affordable. This affects a substantial segment of the teacher workforce. According to an unpublished analysis by the Brookings Institution of American Community Survey data, about 20 percent of the nation’s 3.5 million public school teachers—approximately 700,000—have children ages 5 and younger.
School closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the precarious situation that teachers with young children are in, with little room for error when emergencies or unexpected situations arise. Women, who still often shoulder the brunt of caregiving duties, represent just more than three-quarters of all teachers and have therefore been pushed out of the workforce due to insufficient child care. In a study of teachers who left the profession due to the pandemic, child care responsibilities were ranked as one of the top reasons for leaving. Predictably, child care was a greater concern for younger teachers, with 24 percent of teachers under age 40 citing child care as the main pandemic-related reason for leaving teaching. Even prior to the pandemic, 37 percent of teachers left their jobs for personal reasons, including child care and other family or health reasons. While the American Rescue Plan provided emergency funds to stabilize the child care sector and support caregivers through the expanded child tax credit, these are short-term investments and will not permanently address issues of child care access and affordability.
In a study of teachers who left the profession due to the pandemic, child care responsibilities were ranked as one of the top reasons for leaving.
The pandemic has exacerbated already-existing teacher shortages, particularly in high-need subjects and for teachers who instruct English language learners or students who need special education services. Teacher shortages and turnover are also significant problems in rural areas, which are more likely to be child care deserts. Increasing access to affordable child care could improve teacher recruitment and retention by enabling more current and future teachers with young children to remain in the classroom. Research suggests that teachers place a high value on affordable child care when considering job opportunities. In fact, a recent study found that, on average, teachers with children under age 12 would be willing to accept a $3,000 child care subsidy instead of a 10 percent salary increase. As communities across the country seek to expand and diversify the teacher workforce through teacher residencies, Grow Your Own programs, and loan forgiveness options, federal investments in child care are another opportunity to make teaching a more financially sustainable career path.
Child care access helps K-12 students and their teachers succeed
While educators need access to child care for their own children, affordable child care is equally important for ensuring students can succeed. Teachers care deeply about their students and are eager to help them thrive in the classroom, but students’ classroom experiences also depend on affordable access to child care and preschool at a young age, which evidence shows is necessary to help young students come to school ready to learn and set them up for success throughout their K-12 education.
The first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial for brain development, which affects their educational experiences. High-quality preschool and child care programs help children with physical, social, emotional, language, and literacy development, as well as cognitive skills. All of these are critical for success in school—particularly when many teachers have noticed that more current students are lacking basic skills than those they taught before the pandemic. There is consensus among researchers that child care and preschool have numerous benefits for students entering elementary school, and a growing body of research suggests that these benefits continue through graduation.
Expanding access to high-quality child care can also increase educational equity, which is crucial to enabling every child to succeed in the classroom. Research shows the largest benefits for children in low-income families, who are disproportionately children of color and less likely to be enrolled under the constraints of the current child care system. Early Head Start, which serves infants and toddlers whose families are below the poverty line, is associated with greater success in school. A recent study found that Tulsa, Oklahoma’s public preschool programs are associated with positive academic outcomes in middle and high school, with more sustained impacts for Black, Hispanic, and Native American students. Access to affordable child care would particularly benefit children in lower-income families and children of color—and their teachers.
A review of evidence finds that the longest-lasting impacts of preschool attendance are seen in social-emotional and behavioral skills, rather than test scores. Students who have strong social skills are better prepared to engage in academic learning while they are in school. If all children could reap the benefits of attending high-quality child care, teachers could spend more time engaging students in deeper learning experiences. Equitably addressing this gap requires systemic federal investments to ensure all students have the foundational support they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.
If all children could reap the benefits of attending high-quality child care, teachers could spend more time engaging students in deeper learning experiences.
Teachers need help, and they need it as soon as possible. As both parents and educators, K-12 teachers need broad federal investments to lower the cost of child care to ensure that they can afford to stay in the profession and so that their students are best prepared to succeed in their classrooms. Ensuring access to affordable child care would support teachers already in the profession and diversify and expand the pool of teacher candidates—something the country desperately needs.