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Commentary: Equal Pay For Early Educators Will Take More Than Legislation

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The state’s new gender equity law went into effect this month and it’s already generating headlines. Even with the progress that is likely take place under the new law—which is one of about 15 enacted in the last two years across the country and in Puerto Rico—it will take years to achieve gender pay equity.

The Institute for Women’s Policy Research estimates that it’s going to take until 2059 to close the wage gap between men and women. Even with this progress, we’re going to need much more than legislation to achieve true pay equity, and the field of education shows why.

When looking at disparities in pay based on gender within occupations, education stands out as unusually egregious. The mostly female (93.4 percent) early care and education (ECE) work force earns $21,400 annually and fewer than half receive employer-sponsored healthcare insurance. The majority male (71 percent) tenured faculty in higher education earns $105,000 annually and enjoy generous employment benefits including healthcare and retirement plans. But the state’s new law will be of no help in narrowing this gap, much less closing it.

Differences in pay for comparable work are permitted based on several factors, including “education, training or experience to the extent such factors are reasonably related to the particular job in question.”

Although people do it all the time—mostly by pointing out that tenured professors must hold a PhD, while some states require only a high school diploma to credential an early educator—there is no sound argument to be made that the job of a college professor is more important or requires more skill than that of a preschool teacher.

A child’s experience with early care and education influences their future academic achievement, level of education, income, and health. As the New York Times captured in a magazine piece published earlier this year titled, “Why Are Our Most Important Teachers Paid the Least?,” the work of ECE teachers and directors is complex and requires ongoing training to deliver results.

"There is no sound argument to be made that the job of a college professor is more important or requires more skill than that of a preschool teacher."

Anne Douglass

Clearly, closing the gender wage gap in education will require changes in how we, as a society, value ECE. Interestingly, the U.S. military has a blueprint from which we can work. The Department of Defense recognized decades ago that quality ECE for service members was critical to military readiness. In 1988, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Force Management and Personnel testified before the military personnel subcommittee of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee warning that low quality childcare programs would impact the military’s “ability to retain good people.”

In response to this threat, Congress passed the Military Child Care Act in 1989 and President George H.W. Bush signed it into law. It mandates standardized education and training in accordance with best practices in the field and caps fees for families based on income with the military making up the difference. Child care programs and facilities are high quality and teachers earn twice that of their civilian counterparts while also receiving healthcare and retirement benefits.

Raising the pay of all early care and education workers by following the military’s system of financing—which the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine touts as an affordable, high quality model in a 2018 report about transforming the financing of ECE programs—would be an important step forward in narrowing the gender wage gap in education.

But doing so will take political will, creativity and financial investment from both the public and private sectors. Massachusetts has already proven itself a leader on other seemingly intractable and complex issues, such as enacting near-universal healthcare.

Closing the gender wage gap in education won’t be easy, but it is by no means impossible. To truly deliver on the promise of equity in pay—and education—we have to try.

Related:

Anne Douglass Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Anne Douglass is an associate professor of early care and education at UMass-Boston. Her latest book is "Leading For Change In Early Care And Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within."

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