The blog of the Urban Institute
January 29, 2021

Policymakers Can Redesign the Early Childhood and Education System to Root Out Structural Racism

Children of color and their families are often marginalized and excluded from access to high-quality early child care and education (ECE). Never has this been so pertinent as amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting Black and Hispanic families, largely because of structural racism.

But children and their families are not the only ones facing barriers. Nearly all child care workers are women. Most are women of color, who are paid less and have fewer professional development opportunities than their white counterparts.

The pandemic has hit the ECE workforce hard and has exacerbated these trends. Like public schools, many private ECE providers closed in the early months of the pandemic. But because ECE is not publicly funded, lower attendance meant ECE providers did not continue receiving salaries and benefits like many public school teachers did. Some private ECE providers remained open at reduced capacity, which meant they received some income, but less than they would have otherwise. Many of these private ECE providers have used their own money to buy personal protective equipment to keep themselves and the children they serve safe. And, unlike people employed by school-based preschool programs, many lack the same sick leave and health insurance benefits.

If policymakers want to address structural racism in the ECE workforce system, they must understand how its historic roots created barriers for workers of color today. That way, they can effectively design solutions that give ECE workers of color the same opportunities white workers have had all along. Evidence from the Urban Institute and other research points to promising policy solutions that leaders can consider to address these inequities.

Characteristics of the ECE workforce spotlight ways structural racism has been baked into the system 

The ECE workforce provides early education and care to children from infancy until they begin public elementary school. It includes people who offer minimally regulated care, such as that offered from family members and neighbors, regulated family child care, center-based child care, Head Start, and publicly funded preschool (PDF). ECE workers can provide quality care and developmental supports to young children that some research shows are associated with long-term success including kindergarten readiness, third grade reading scores, and high school graduation rates.

The ECE workforce comprises about over three million adults, almost all of whom are women. Nearly 40 percent identify as Black or Hispanic. Women of color have historically lacked access to employment and education opportunities that offer higher compensation, benefits packages, and protections. In fact, the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act intentionally excluded domestic workers, which prevented many Black women from receiving key protections, such as minimum wage and overtime eligibility.

Today, ECE educators are among the lowest-paid workers in every state, despite their important role in enabling parents with young children to work. Black and Hispanic early educators make the lowest wages among early childhood educators. Systemic barriers reinforce these inequities. Black ECE teachers are more likely to work with infants and toddlers—positions that pay lower wages than those who teach preschool-age children. Yet white teachers are more likely to work in school-sponsored ECE programs, which provide higher pay and benefits. These programs often have credential and degree requirements many people of color can’t meet because they lack equitable educational opportunities and access to the same levels of professional development supports. 

Eliminating racial differences in pay and compensation is one way policymakers can address structural inequities. Federal agencies and national organizations have already begun to take the following steps.

Federal and national efforts

  • Provide economic relief. In December 2020, the COVID-19 economic relief legislation granted states $10 billion in dedicated relief to the child care industry. States are responsible for allocating these funds and could prioritize funds to community-based child care providers and those who serve infants and toddlers, a workforce where women of color are disproportionally represented.
  • Support research that employs a racial equity approach. The Foundation for Child Development has provided the Urban Institute and Boston University with grants to convene young scholars and national leaders to consider how to employ a racial equity lens in framing research questions, analyses, and reporting. Briefs and a forthcoming report present recommendations about how such an approach can inform our understanding of structural racism and policy solutions. A summary of the foundations efforts for the RISER (Researchers Investigating Sociocultural Equity and Race) Network demonstrate its success and contribution to the field.
  • Prioritize the health and well-being of educators. The Biden administration has issued an executive order that prioritizes the health and well-being of educators affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, acknowledging their important role in supporting young children’s education, growth, and development.

Many states and communities are also working to redesign existing systems to support more equitable outcomes in the ECE workforce.

State efforts 

When the ECE workforce system was designed, it created intentional barriers that prevented people of color from obtaining the opportunities and compensation they deserve for their work. Breaking down these barriers will require systemic change and buy-in from stakeholders at every level of government and our society.

The Biden-Harris administration’s plan to advance racial equity and associated Executive Order call for policies and programs to ensure workers of color are compensated fairly and treated with dignity, for equity in higher education opportunities, and increased financial opportunities for people of color. This renewed commitment at the federal level, coupled with state and community actions, could help close equity gaps. These actions can begin to address systemic racism by going beyond being nonracist toward embodying Angela Davis’s call to be antiracist.

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