Educators trusted with babies and toddlers don’t make a living wage — Illinois wants to change this

More than three years after Illinois policy makers began wrestling with the question of how much to pay early childhood educators, the governor’s office is proposing an answer: $40,000 for new teachers with college degrees. 

The proposal, which members of an influential council of early education advocates reviewed on Monday, is far from changing the way educators in Illinois are paid. Still, it suggests that Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration is taking advantage of the state’s relatively stable finances and national momentum around early childhood education to accelerate a conversation about raising pay for teachers working with the state’s youngest students.

Across Illinois, early childhood educators are paid far less than their counterparts in K-12 schools. In 2015, a full-time early childhood teacher made about $25,000 a year, according to  state data, and in Chicago, teachers often leave jobs at community centers for higher wages and benefits in district-run schools.

The wages are so low that half of the state’s early childhood teachers receive public benefits for low-income families, according to a report that the early childhood council reviewed. The low wages are considered a main driver of the teacher shortage in early childhood classrooms — which is likely to grow as the state seeks to expand access to early learning.

Under the proposal, teachers assistants would start at about $30,000, while site directors whose positions are funded under the state’s early childhood block grant, which funds programs from birth to age 3, would have a base pay of $60,000 a year. 

“Compensation parity is the foundation of a quality workforce,” said Bethany Patten, workforce policy director for the governor’s office. “We’re thinking about who is working with our children.”

The proposal addresses one crucial question — how much early childhood educators should be paid — but not another, more pressing one: where the money would come from. Here, Patten told the council, the answers are less clear, beyond the idea that additional costs should not be borne by cash-strapped providers or the families that use them. 

“We didn’t want to see proposals that would create an increased burden for providers as well as an increased burden for families,” she said. Instead, she said, the state needs to invest more in early learning as a whole.

Last week in New York City, members of a union that includes many early childhood educators approved a contract that narrows the pay gap between educators in community-run programs and those in public school classrooms. There, funding is coming from the city — and the deal still does not extend to make early childhood educators.

Council member Dan Harris emphasized that raising wages is only part of what needs to happen to improve early childhood education across the state. 

“I want to emphasize all the work that’s going to be necessary to make the compensation stuff happen,” Harris. “That takes resources. I don’t want us to think those numbers up there, as significant as they are, are enough because there’s a lot of labor-intensive work that needs to be funded to get where we need to go.”