Pay your teachers well

New study shows we must support early childhood educators

In Short

A recent survey of Jewish preschool teachers shows that they are paid far less than their K-12 peers. What should the Jewish community do about it?

As a new round of young children is about to begin their Jewish early childhood experience, it is time, once again, to acknowledge that the educators who give these children the strong starts they need for successful transitions to kindergarten are some of the lowest-paid educational professionals.

Speaking to eJewishPhilanthropy last year about the state of child care in the United States, my colleague Lisa Samick, president of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ), said, “We recognize, universally, that there’s a crisis here and that there needs to be more attention paid to it.” 

ECE-RJ, in partnership with Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA), Chicago’s Jewish United Fund and 15 other Jewish federations and organizations from across the county, collaborated on a national study of early childhood compensation.

The study, Compensation and Credentialing in American Jewish Early Childhood Centers, reveals that early childhood educators in Jewish centers earn half the amount of their peers in public K-12 teaching positions and that action is needed to create a profession in which educators can earn a living wage.

With its large sample size and varied findings, the study quantifies the extent of the challenge facing the Jewish community, notably mirroring and not disconnected from the challenge facing the country, which must address the dual issues of low wages and affordability for families in childcare settings. As research has shown, the Jewish community cannot engage future generations without Jewish early childhood centers, and likewise America itself cannot run without child care.

Now that we have a common understanding of the low wages and insufficient benefits available to educators, we can say, in a singular voice, that we must do more to support our early childhood professionals. We need to do this not only because it is what Jewish tradition demands of us, but also because low wages are driving teachers out of the profession at alarming rates, leading many Jewish schools to turn families away – not for lack of space but for lack of teachers.

We can learn from recent actions taken in Chicago, where the JCC has worked to increase teachers’ pay, health care benefits, paid time off and expanded maternity leave. This is a start, but more work is needed.

Here are steps that Jewish communal leaders, lay people, parents, school leaders, funders and concerned citizens can take:

  1. Take the time to read the report carefully.  
  2. Think locally. What do you want to see in your own community? What can you learn from other communities? There are many states and cities that are running innovative programs or funding mechanisms to help educators (all that is in the report too! No extra research needed.)
  3. Engage together. Change will require engaging in conversations, advocacy, local collaborations to ensure perspectives are heard. Tell everyone you know about what you learned, what you experience on a daily basis, and how passionate you are about the work. With data in hand, individuals must turn to one another to turn those perspectives into the power that we will all need to advance solutions.

At least that is what I’ll be doing. This report is meant to be a launch pad for action. It is not meant for passive spectators. Without meaningful changes, including higher-quality job opportunities and appropriate compensation, the sector will struggle to return to its pre-pandemic size, leaving many families vying for few openings.

Kate Warach is the director of the Early Childhood Collaborative at the Jewish United Fund in Chicago.