Early childhood educators are often considered caregivers by policymakers.
Early childhood educators are often considered as caregivers by policymakers. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Stephanie Weathermon has a passion for teaching young San Antonians.  

To the San Antonio Independent School District Head Start teacher, early childhood education sets the foundation for the way children will learn for the rest of their lives. 

“It’s learning through play and making sure that it’s fun for them,” she said. “And I think it’s really important, because I don’t remember having that when I was younger.”

But the expertise and care Weathermon has brought to the classroom over the last five years brought financial challenges. Without the benefit of two incomes that comes from being married, Weathermon said she wouldn’t be able to afford to teach. 

“In the small campus where I work, we have … multiple teachers that have to work two jobs,” she said. “And it’s not just a 7 to 3 o’clock job. We’re working after hours, we’re working on weekends, we’re working during my lunch break, during my conference time, making sure that things get done.”

Texas has more early childhood education professionals than any other state, yet wages have remained stagnant for years at just over $11 an hour, culminating in a staffing shortage and resulting in a lack of availability that’s hurting the economy and hindering school readiness, according to advocates and state data. Universities, advocates and both private and public institutions are working to professionalize the industry in San Antonio and in turn raise both wages and quality of care.

Shift from caregiver to teacher

Early educators, who care for and teach children from 6 months old to age 4, have long been considered by policymakers and taxpayers as simply caregivers, necessary to allow parents to work, according to advocates and educators.

A growing body of knowledge about brain development in a child’s early years — and the importance of early childhood education in future academic success — have changed the equation. Now quality standards and certifications have shifted to reshape the job as an educator, instead of just a caregiver or babysitter. 

But without standardized requirements for high quality education, public investment or adequate wages, the child care profession has not seen a change in wages or career paths along with this shift, said Mark Larson, the executive director of Early Matters San Antonio, an early childhood education advocacy group.  

Decades of low compensation, high turnover and lack of career mobility for early educators were compounded by the pandemic, advocates say.

Early educators across Texas left the industry in droves over the last two years, leading to the closures of one in five centers in San Antonio, while others across the state limit the number of classrooms that are open. While some have reopened fully, large swaths of Bexar County are still considered “quality child care deserts,” according to the advocacy organization Children At Risk.  

A recent analysis found 98% of low-income families in Bexar County do not have access to high quality child care and others don’t have access to any care at all. 

Recent policy briefs from the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Center highlight two of the top reasons why teachers are leaving: lack of benefits and low compensation. 

Nationally, early childhood educators earn less than 98% of other occupations. In new research, the Prenatal-to-3 Policy Impact Center zoomed in on Texas, where the typical early childhood educator earns $11.12 an hour — more than $4 per hour below a living wage.

The brief also raises issues of equity and advancement, with Hispanic educators, educators at subsidized programs and rural educators earning the least. 

The analysis also found that experience does not bring meaningful wage increases. An early childhood educator with 25 years on the job would, on average, make only $2 more per hour than a new high school graduate joining the field.

While the impact on the educators themselves is significant, the impact on communities and the economy is also immense.

A study released earlier this month by ReadyNation found the nation’s infant-toddler child care crisis now costs $122 billion in lost earnings, productivity and revenue every year. That is up from $57 billion in a 2018 study that found the crisis was already severely damaging the economy.

Retaining staff with living wages

But higher wages and benefits have averted the staffing shortages at multiple San Antonio centers, providing a window into what is possible with private and public investment in the earliest years of education.  

The Brighton Center, which provides a variety of services including child care and therapy for kids with special needs, has paid above the state average in order to attract and retain staff along with insurance and benefits, something many early educators do not have.  

The center just opened a room for infants and toddlers, one of the ages most affected by the teacher shortage due to the low teacher-to-student ratio required by law. 

“We increased pay, and as a nonprofit we have the ability to fundraise, so we just decided it was important to our mission,” Brighton CEO Katrina Campbell said. “For our older classrooms, we hired certified, degreed teachers at a much higher salary to help us run a really, really, really high quality preschool program.” 

Since the nonprofit relies partly on donations, the sustainability of those wages isn’t a given. 

“Right now, we’ve had the luxury of being able to fundraise enough money,” she said, “but I think as a CEO, it keeps me up at night.”

Since its inception, Pre-K 4 SA has been a national role model for publicly funded early childhood education, and Prenatal-to-3 center’s recommendations roughly align with how it is structured. San Antonio taxpayers approved allocating a one-eighth cent portion of sales tax to fund Pre-K 4 SA in 2012 and reauthorized it in 2020 for another eight years. 

Hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program has rebounded. It has expanded to include 3-year-olds and maintained staff, and actually benefited from teachers looking to leave the K-12 sector, according to Pre-K 4 SA CEO Sarah Baray. 

While Pre-K 4 SA has worked well for the program’s 2,000 students, it also has helped other child development centers increase quality and stay open by offering training, supplies and other types of support. It is now turning its focus to building a sustainable pipeline for early educators. 

“We actually went into a completely different mode during the pandemic. We went from helping them improve quality to helping them just stay open,” Baray said.  “Now we’re working on the teacher pipeline in conjunction with Texas A&M.” 

Sarah Baray, CEO of Pre-K 4 SA, said her program has rebounded from the COVID-19 pandemic. It has expanded to include 3-year-olds and maintained staff, and benefited from teachers looking to leave the K-12 sector. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Professionalizing the early education workforce

Many teachers in early education enter the field directly after high school and can spend years gaining certificates, experience and value as educators. But without a standard professional career path, those skills don’t translate into degrees or higher salaries. 

Texas A&M University-San Antonio, along with Pre-K 4 SA, is looking for ways to professionalize the industry by removing barriers for early educators, who historically have been women of color. 

Catherine O’Brien, a lecturer in the College of Education and Human Development at TAMU-SA, said many credentials in early childhood education are simply to fulfill requirements for licensing and don’t lead to a professional degree. 

“The sad part about that is now we have all of these people who’ve been in the field for years, some of them for decades, that don’t have a paper credential that says I’m a … highly qualified early childhood practitioner,” she said. 

As part of its efforts to bolster the profession, the university is planning to construct a 40,000-square-foot education center near its campus in South San Antonio that will showcase what high-quality early childhood education is and fill gaps in the child care deserts across Bexar County. 

Melissa Jozwiak, an associate professor of early childhood at TAMU-SA, said the university is becoming the “hub for high-quality early childhood education” in San Antonio and the state. 

Larson, the Early Matters leader, said that the standards applied to K-12 teachers will likely be applied to their early educator peers as the professionalization of the sector continues.

Downstream effects of missing students

The stakes for improving wages and drawing new early childhood educators into the profession are high. The effects are showing up as children arrive at San Antonio schools less prepared and developmentally below where previous preschoolers and kindergarteners have been.

Parents who were unable to find a high-quality child care option for their children opted for lower quality care or kept them at home.

Weathermon, the SAISD teacher, said that has presented added challenges. 

“I’m working with 3-year-olds — these are what some would call COVID babies,” Weathermon said. “We’re seeing a lot more social-emotional needs, a lot more speech, communication, language needs.”

While the number of students considered “kindergarten ready” remains below 80% in many area school districts, students who attended a pre-K program performed far better than those who did not.

In Northside Independent School District, the number of students prepared for kindergarten fell slightly in recent years.

NISD Superintendent Brian Woods said the closure of child care facilities, as well as parents pulling children out of younger grades early in the pandemic, are partly to blame for the lack of readiness. 

“I’m optimistic that we will catch those kids back up to where they should have been,” he told the San Antonio Report. But it’s going to take a little while longer of them being in school every day with a high quality teacher for that to happen.”

Woods said the district is exploring options for expanding early education options beyond the full-day pre-K for 4-year-olds and special needs programs for 3-year-olds , including the possibility of partnering with existing high-quality care providers in order to expand access and readiness. 

Weathermon said that at the end of the day the teaching profession, including early educators, needs to be valued in a similar way as other industries. 

“I think that we really are undervalued for the work that we do,” she said. “We teach, we educate, we support doctors, lawyers, construction workers, city employees and teachers. So I think our job is extremely important.”