Early educators are responsible for preparing young children for lifelong health, wellness and learning. I have a hard time imagining a more important job. And so, it was not at all surprising to discover nearly 9 out of 10 voters — across political parties and demographics — believe early childhood educators are an integral part of our society, valued in the same way as firefighters and nurses.

And yet, 84% of early educators across the country who want to make early childhood education their long-term career, say low pay is a serious barrier to staying in the field. How can it be the people we entrust with the care and education of young children during the most critical time of human development, aren’t earning enough to support their own families?

Early childhood educators working in child care and preschool earn far less than their counterparts teaching kindergarten and the elementary grades. Consequently, they struggle to meet their families’ basic needs. The median salary for a child care worker in Vermont is $27,600, often without benefits. This is far below the $44,600 a Vermonter living in a two-adult household with two children must earn in order to afford basic needs like housing, transportation, food and child care. We need to fix this problem.

As CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), I have the privilege of advancing the work of early childhood educators. Gov. Phil Scott invited me to Vermont to discuss the importance of investing in the early education workforce to improve outcomes for children, families and communities.

The same week I was in Vermont, the president of the Vermont Business Roundtable, Lisa Ventriss, was on the evening news talking about the inter-relationship of child care and the state’s workforce crisis. Her interview came on the heels of a major credit rating agency downgrading Vermont’s bond rating, citing the state’s aging population and shrinking workforce.

Vermont’s business and political leaders understand that increasing access to high-quality, affordable child care is essential to ensuring young families can afford to live and work in the state. But it will be impossible to solve the child care crisis in Vermont or the rest of the nation if qualified early educators can’t afford to enter or stay in the field.

While in Vermont, I met with leaders from NAEYC’s state affiliate, the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children (VTAEYC). VTAEYC is leading a project to ensure Vermont’s early childhood workforce is included in the national movement to create an effective, prepared, diverse and well-compensated early childhood education profession. In the past nine months, VTAEYC met with more than 725 early educators.

Early educators support a thriving economy by providing critical services to working families. Most importantly, early educators play a crucial role in supporting healthy development and giving children a strong foundation for a happy life. We’ve all heard the phrase “With great power comes great responsibility.” Likewise, with great responsibility must come recognition and appropriate compensation.

Returning to the polling that showed Americans saying they value early childhood educators on par with nurses, consider the trajectory of that profession. A couple of generations ago, nurses were dismissed as “pillow fluffers.” Today, their work is recognized as a critical, highly skilled profession. A similar transformation for early childhood educators is underway and, frankly, it’s long overdue.

Rhian Evans Allvin is the chief executive officer of the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), the largest national professional association for early educators.

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