Credit: George Danby

Ensuring that all young children have an equal opportunity for healthy growth and development is a long-term investment in Maine’s future prosperity. Ninety percent of a child’s brain develops as early as 5 years old, and positive early learning experiences establish strong foundations for the brain’s architecture. Early educators play an important role in young children’s learning and development. They are essentially brain builders, setting the foundation for children’s success.

Despite what we know about the importance of positive and enriching experiences in young children’s lives, early educators earn the lowest wages in the education field. In Maine, the median wage of this workforce is only $11.18 per hour, equating to just $23,000 per year.

Improved compensation and other professional supports for the workforce will improve our early care and education system. Much like a home remodeling project, when builders run into a problem, they need more resources to fix it, not fewer.

We need to increase our state’s commitment to early care and education so we can update and strengthen it. If we invest in our early educators, they can focus on their important work to build our children’s brains.

Maine cannot increase the wages of early educators without public investment. While directors of child care centers and family child care programs would like to raise wages, they know that families can’t afford to pay more. Parent fees are the main source of funding right now, and the cost of child care rivals or exceeds the cost of college tuition in Maine.

Why are parents paying so much, while early educators are earning so little? In the early care and education industry, labor costs make up the vast majority of operational costs. Labor costs cannot be offset by strategies that other industries might use, such as hiring fewer workers. Early education and care providers need trained educators and low staff-to-child ratios to maintain safety and quality.

The low wages and lack of access to professional supports, such as affordable degree opportunities, affect early education programs of all shapes and sizes. Across Maine, we are seeing high staff turnover and vacancies, resulting in disruption in children’s care and program closures. We see this in Maine’s Head Start programs, which serve more than 3,000 at-risk infants, toddlers and preschoolers across the state. We see this in family child care, where there has been a significant decline in the number of programs since 2012. We see this at the YMCAs across Maine, where we have waitlists for our early care and education programs.

We can make positive strides in increasing Maine families’ access to quality programs with legislation, such as LD 1584, which would structure career pathways for early educators with scholarships, stackable credentials and a focus on fair compensation. These supports would enable programs to focus on providing quality early learning for children and families and would attract new educators to the profession.

While some may argue against public funding for early care and education, what we invest in the early years pays social and economic dividends tomorrow. We know that high quality early learning experiences improve lifetime outcomes for children, and that a stable, well-trained and well-compensated workforce is the core of a high quality early learning system. When we invest in our early educators, they are better equipped to help Maine’s children reach their full potential.

A remodel involves substantial change, but it is practical and achievable. It maintains the structure’s value and builds up from its strong foundation. In Maine, we need to remodel our valuable early care and education system. We can make it work by supporting the educators that support young children. Our commitment to the early years will positively influence Maine’s future citizenry, workforce and leadership.

Meg Helming is the director of advocacy and impact at the YMCA Alliance of Maine. Chrissie Davis is the chair of the Family Child Care Association of Maine. Dianne Nelder is the chair of the Maine Head Start Directors Association.