Column: Florida’s early childhood education system is in crisis | Opinion
Between the pandemic and the Great Resignation, the already-vulnerable early childhood education system has been pushed into crisis.
Public education has been chronically under-funded. Early childhood educators share problems facing their K-12 colleagues: poor compensation, overwork and burnout. In early childhood education, these issues are exacerbated by the fact that the responsibilities of early childhood educators go beyond learning colors, shapes and the alphabet.
Early childhood education spans from a child’s birth to entering kindergarten. With 80 percent of brain development happening in the first three years of life, preschool is a critical period when children begin to learn how to interact with others and develop lifelong interests.
The neurological growth that sets the foundation for language acquisition, literacy, numeracy and development of critical executive functioning skills needs intentional nurturing and communication. Without it, the children entering kindergarten have a weaker foundation — with a lifelong impact. Studies show children who attend early childhood education programs are better prepared for school, especially in terms of academic development.
In 2021, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed two pieces of legislation into law. HB 419 ensures students are assessed for kindergarten readiness in Pre-K so that struggling students can be identified. HB 7011 created a statewide monitoring program to track students’ progress from pre-kindergarten through middle school. These laws support student success, but we still need to see changes for teacher success and retention.
Compensation is at the heart of the crisis. Poor pay and low benefits for early childhood education teachers have contributed to a record number of vacancies that have been impossible to fill. In Pinellas County alone, the number of children on waiting lists tops 3,000, with staff shortages as the main factor.
Teacher pay needs to be addressed to build a better early childhood education system. According to PreSchoolTeacher.org, the median salary for early childhood educators in the Tampa and St. Petersburg area is $24,910. To put that in perspective, the federal poverty income threshold for a family of four is $26,500, and a family of two is $17,420. Why would an educator stay in a job that places them in poverty, when they could work in retail or restaurants for more money and substantially less stress? Salaries below the poverty line do nothing to entice new recruits, and it cannot retain existing teachers.
Quality educators in childcare is crucial, but without a livable wage, the exodus of teachers who have stayed in the field solely for their passion to educate will not continue. There is no way to sustain quality early childhood education without doing the obvious — pay teachers more.
Thrive by Five Pinellas is working to ensure an equitable, accessible, responsive and accountable early childhood system that will increase the percentage of children in our community “ready” for kindergarten. If there are no teachers to teach, how will our children be “ready” to grow? If we value our children, we must value the individuals tasked with pouring into them in the most important years of their lives: the early childhood educator.
As we continue to deal with staff shortages, parents can play an important role. A child’s first exposure to education starts at home. Parents can take steps to help their child prepare for kindergarten, such as reading, counting, and social skills. And, parents can get involved with their local schools as volunteers to help fill the gap.
Bilan Joseph, Ed.D., is the director of Thrive By Five Pinellas, a collective impact network that’s focused on creating, connecting and supporting community resources for healthy development and kindergarten readiness for children under age 5. The Community Foundation Tampa Bay serves as the backbone organization for the network.