Biden’s New Plan Boosts Pay for Overworked Head Start Teachers with Low Salaries

Early childhood educators rarely earn enough to maintain a comfortable lifestyle. It’s a challenging reality that even Head Start teachers cannot avoid. 

Head Start, a federal program for low-income children in their early years, has strict academic requirements and quality standards. However, the average salary for Head Start teachers, at all educational and job levels throughout the country, stands at around $38,500. Even teachers with a bachelor’s degree do not make much more, with an average salary of just under $40,000.  

The meager pay, combined with the physically and emotionally draining work, contributes significantly to high turnover rates in Head Start programs. Ultimately, this affects the children as well, as their opportunities to learn, interact, and thrive are hindered when there are staff shortages or overburdened teachers. 

Exclusive news shared with USA TODAY reveals that the Biden administration is taking steps to increase the salaries of Head Start staff with a proposed rule that would require them to be paid at least as much as local prekindergarten or preschool teachers employed by public school districts. This could result in average pay increases of more than $10,000.

The proposed rule was published on the Federal Register late Wednesday afternoon and is available for viewing in the U.S. government’s daily journal. It is scheduled for official publication on Monday. The public will have a 60-day period to provide comments after it is published. Following the comment period, department officials will make any necessary adjustments and finalize the rule.

Child care aid worth billions has expired.Currently, costs are skyrocketing.

How low are the salaries of Head Start and preschool teachers?

The salaries are extremely low. 

Data shows that the poverty rate among early childhood educators is eight times higher compared to K-8 teachers. Early childhood educators often rely on public assistance or leave their preschool classrooms for other jobs, such as fast-food chains or the public school system. Although public school teacher salaries also have their own challenges, the higher salaries and better benefits offered by school districts make them an attractive option for Head Start staff and other early educators.

The impact on early learning classrooms is evident. A survey conducted in February found that 20% of Early Head Start and Head Start classrooms had to be closed, with a majority (80%) attributing the closures to staff vacancies. Overall, approximately 1 in 5 staff positions remained vacant, with most departing teachers citing the low compensation as the reason.

These vacancies result in fewer available slots for children, as Head Start and Early Head Start programs maintain strict student-teacher ratios. According to a 2023 brief by the National Head Start Association, an estimated 137,000 to 275,000 children are on waiting lists for Head Start or Early Head Start, which is equivalent to as much as a third of the currently funded spots.

The ultimate objective of the proposed rule is “to ensure that Head Start remains the benchmark childcare program in America,” stated Xavier Becerra, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, in an interview with USA TODAY. 

Underresourced parents with limited options are finding themselves with even fewer choices due to the staffing shortages in Head Start, which in turn affects the quality of the program. 

Becerra emphasized that parents would not want to send their children to a daycare center without quality teachers or a conducive learning environment. The proposed rule aims to attract the best professionals to Head Start to shape the future of early childhood education. However, achieving this goal has been challenging due to the need for increased compensation, salaries, and benefits for these dedicated professionals who care for our children.

Low pay has become a major crisis in education:Bipartisan support for increasing teacher salaries.

What is the significance of the proposed rule?

In April, President Joe Biden issued an executive order directing the Department of Health and Human Services to devise strategies for ensuring pay parity between Head Start staff and elementary educators while also expanding access for families most in need.

The proposed salary increase emerged as a result of this directive. The administration hopes that the regulatory rulemaking process will be more conducive to realizing these goals, rather than relying solely on Congress to determine funding increments. According to Katie Hamm, the deputy assistant secretary for the HHS Office of Early Childhood Development, the use of negotiated rulemaking, or neg reg, is seen by administration officials as a preferred method to accomplish Biden’s Head Start objectives. Earlier budget proposals in Congress sought to reduce Head Start funding instead of increasing it.

Once the proposed rule is officially published, most likely on Monday, there will be a 60-day period for public comments. During this time, the administration hopes to receive feedback from various stakeholders and will consider any necessary changes. After deliberation, a final rule will be published, although the timeline for this is yet to be determined, according to Hamm.

The administration envisions the rule establishing Head Start as the go-to destination for early childhood professionals, preventing them from viewing it as a stepping stone to higher-paying positions in K-12 education or a career path that leads them into less fulfilling but more remunerative jobs at large retail stores. 

Becerra emphasized that the proposed policy, in whatever form it takes after the rulemaking process, should enhance resources for student learning, rather than detract from them.

Facing budget cuts this year, many Head Start and Early Start programs had to choose between pay changes for staff or funding for resources benefiting the children. Some observers expressed concerns about the unintended consequences of well-intended efforts to increase worker pay on the students.

“Head Start should be capable of multitasking,” stated Becerra. He believes that in addition to improving working conditions and pay for Head Start teachers, the country should expand access to quality early learning seats, enabling parents to “continue to be productive workers in our economy.”

The administration’s 2024 budget proposal includes $600 billion for early childhood education. In addition to wage increases for Head Start employees, the proposed funding will be allocated to universal preschool initiatives and child care assistance.

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