Despite its proven success, future of Wage Ladder uncertain

Gary Burris, Senior Policy Associate

When it comes to improving the quality of early childhood education, nothing beats a caring, compassionate teacher with training, experience and education in the field. Unfortunately, while the profession of early childhood teaching is personally rewarding, it offers woefully low salary and benefits.

An educated and experienced early childhood teacher earns about the same amount as a parking lot attendant — half of what a similarly educated teacher would make in the public school system. This wage disparity makes it difficult to attract and retain high quality teachers in early learning classrooms.

Recognizing this problem, from 2000-2003 EOI led a coalition of unions, child care center directors and employees to begin Washington’s Child Care Career and Wage Ladder. Its goal was to provide financial rewards for completing relevant education courses, and the pilot program was highly successful. A rigorous evaluation with a comparison group, conducted by Washington State University, showed the Wage Ladder improved the education levels of teachers and the quality of teaching in pilot centers.

The successes of the Wage Ladder program have received attention throughout the years, and been touted as models for success. Recently, the Bessie Tartt Wilson Initiative for Children, Inc. highlighted the wage ladder as a model for compensation in their Blueprint for Early Education Compensation Reform.

However, despite its proven success , funding for the Wage Ladder has suffered during economic downturns. In 2003, the recession and resulting budget crisis ended the program, but not for long. The Wage Ladder was established into law in 2005, and state funds allowed it to re-start in about 60 centers. While the legislature intended the Wage Ladder to be in all centers that chose to participate, current funding levels have limited the Wage Ladder to just 72 centers this year.

But now, with Washington facing an unprecedented recession-induced budget shortfall, the fate of the Wage Ladder is uncertain. Governor Gregoire proposed eliminating the program entirely in her 2011-13 budget proposal, and while the House has allocated funding for it through June 20, 2011, the Senate has not.

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