Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

The Early Childhood Education Career and Wage Ladder

The unfunded link essential for high quality early learning

Policymakers and educators alike agree: high-quality early learning depends on the competency, education, and compensation of a child’s teacher/caregiver.[1] While Washington has made strides on the first two factors, it has failed to ensure early childhood teachers are adequately compensated, even with an available remedy in state law. As a result, wages for early childhood educators – already at poverty-level – have stagnated:

early-childhood-education-career-and-wage-ladder-brief-graph1Source: Licensed Child Care in Washington State: Market Rate Surveys[2]
(Click to embiggen)

Washington’s legislature has long recognized the importance of high-quality early childhood education, and even recognized the importance of good compensation for teachers/caregivers. House Bill 1636, passed in 2005, states:

“The legislature…finds…low wages for child care workers create a barrier for individuals entering the profession, result in child care workers leaving the profession in order to earn a living wage in another profession, and make it difficult for child care workers to afford professional education and training. As a result, the availability of quality child care in the state suffers.”[3]

To some extent, legislators have taken up the challenge of public investment in early learning, under the leadership of Ruth Kagi, Chair of the state’s Early Learning and Human Services Committee. In 2015, lawmakers increased early learning spending by $131 million, focusing efforts on continued federal funding for an early learning center rating system (called Early Achievers Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS) and on the expansion of ECEAP (Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program) to fund a total of 11,700 slots (at 2.5 hours/day) for children from low-income families.[4]

These investments are important – but basic incentives for teachers and caregivers to follow their careers in early learning are missing. Legislators can remedy that by funding the state’s Early Childhood Education Career and Wage Ladder.

History of the Early Childhood Education Career and Wage Ladder

In 1999, Governor Gary Locke, with the persuasion of Speaker Frank Chopp, allocated $4 million per year for a pilot Early Childhood Education Career and Wage Ladder. State funds paid for additional increments of pay for early childhood educators/caregivers based on educational advancement, and child care centers supported additional wage increments based on experience and job responsibility.

Following the 2002 recession, legislators discontinued funding for the Wage Ladder. Fortunately, by that time researchers at Washington State University had finished a three-year evaluation of the Career and Wage Ladder.[5] They found the Wage Ladder resulted in important and statistically significant improvements in the following areas:

  • The quality of care and teaching in the overall classroom environment
  • Teacher-child interactions
  • Educational achievement and pursuit of education
  • Length of employment and retention of new employees
  • Wages and benefits
  • Employee self-esteem, morale, job satisfaction and sense of professionalism
  • Time off provided by early learning and care centers to enable staff to pursue educational credentials

The total cost of the Wage Ladder was about $450 per child per year for the state – a frugal, robust, and evidence-based intervention that research showed helped promote high-quality child care. It was the only early learning program in Washington found to create statistically significant improvements in the quality of care.

In 2005, Representative Eric Pettigrew sponsored, and the Legislature passed, the Early Childhood Education Career and Wage Ladder into law.[6] Legislators approved funding the following year, and continued funding through the start of the 2008 recession, with federal stimulus funds partially replacing the state’s allocation. In 2011, legislators agreed to Governor Gregoire’s proposal to zero out Wage Ladder funding.

Fixing early childhood educator/caregiver compensation

Wages for child care workers float just above the state’s minimum wage ($9.47/hour). Child care Assistants made an average $10.70/hour in 2014, teachers earned $12.85, and supervisors received $15.52.

These low wages are both a major cause and a reflection of gender and racial discrimination and inequity. 12 of 13 teachers/caregivers working in child care centers are women.[7] And while less than 20% of Washingtonians are people of color, child care is disproportionately staffed by African-Americans and Hispanics.[8]

The Early Childhood Education Career and Wage Ladder, still in law, can remedy this. Supplemental budget funding of $5 million (annually) would cover approximately one fifth of child care center workers in Washington:[9]

Percent of centers covered Number of child care center staff (2014) Wage increment for education Annual cost
20% 5,168 $1,000 $5,167,600
50% 12,919 $1,000 $12,919,000
100% 25,838 $1,000 $25,838,000

Notes and Sources

[1]     Marcy Whitebook, Deborah Phillips, and Carollee Howes, Worthy Work, STILL Unlivable Wages: The Early Childhood Workforce 25 Years after the National Child Care Staffing Study”; Brandon , R.N. & Scarpa, J.P. (2006). Supply, demand, and accountability: Effective strategies to enhance the quality of early learning experience s through workforce improvement. Seattle, WA: Human Services Policy Center; Gallinsky, E. (1990). The costs of not providing quality early childhood programs in Reaching the Full Cost of Quality in Early Childhood Programs (p. 27). National Association for the Education of Young Children; Whitebook, M., et al. (1989) Who cares? Child care teachers and the quality of care in America, executive summary of the National Child Care Staffing Study (p. 12). Oakland , CA: Child Care Employee Project.


[3]     Substitute House Bill 1636, Section 1,  1636.

[4]     The ECEAP funding increase in FY 2015-17 over FY 2013-15 is $24,250,000, funding 1,600 additional slots (@ 2.5 hours weekday). See ESSB 6052, 2015, Section 1610, page 511. Also, 2015-17 Omnibus Operating Budget Overivew, pages 339-342.


[6]     HB 1636, RCW 43.215.505 – 43.215.510,

[7]     Early learning professionals in Washington, 2013 Workforce Report, Washington State Department of Early Learning, p. 6,

[8]     Early learning professionals in Washington, 2013 Workforce Report, Washington State Department of Early Learning,

[9]     Source: Licensed Child Care in Washington State: 2014 Market Rate Survey,

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