Testimony of Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, DC Action Director of Early Childhood Policy and Programs at the Committee of the Whole Hearing

June 3, 2021
Person Testifying: Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen
Title: Director of Early Childhood Policy and Programs, DC Action
Testimony Heard By: Council of the District of Columbia
Type of Hearing: Committee of the Whole Hearing - Fiscal Year 2022

Good morning, Chairman Mendelson and members of the Council. Thank you for the opportunity to address the Committee of the Whole about OSSE’s early learning budget. I am Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, Director of Early Childhood Policy and Programs for DC Action and Director of the Under 3 DC coalition. DC Action uses research, data, and a racial equity lens to break down barriers that stand in the way of all kids reaching their full potential. Our collaborative advocacy initiatives bring the power of young people and all residents to raise their voices to create change. Through our signature coalitions, Under 3 DC and the DC Home Visiting Council, we empower families and communities. We are also the home of DC KIDS COUNT, an online resource that tracks key indicators of child and youth well-being.

Today, my remarks will focus on the need to rebuild and strengthen the early learning workforce in the District’s FY 2022 budget. I am grateful that most members of the DC Council affirmed their understanding of the need for a strong educator workforce through the unanimous passage of the Birth-to-Three law, and that others have expressed their support for a stronger child care system that fairly compensates the majority Black and brown woman early learning workforce.

In order to build the sustainable system our children, families, and economy need, recurring local funding – starting with $60 million for fair early educator compensation in FY 2022 – has to be part of the equation. The Mayor’s budget includes nearly $147 million for child care (primarily in the category of relief) over the next four years, but her proposed budget lacks a long-term vision for an improved early learning system, and relies completely on one-time federal funds from the American Rescue Plan and other federal sources. Now – with this historic influx of federal funds, as DC child care teacher credential requirements increase, in a critical moment in the child care workforce crisis, and in the face of threats to the law requiring fair early learning workforce compensation – is the moment to make the investments in an early learning system that is high quality, accessible, and equitable.

Early educators are the foundation of our early learning system, critical to each of its three pillars of quality, access, and affordability. They shape the most defining years of infants and toddlers’ mental, emotional, and social development. Early educators play a central role in nearly all of the 39 areas that infant and toddler early learning programs are evaluated on through the District’s Quality Rating Improvement System (QRIS), Capital Quality. Despite their important role and their skills and experience, in DC, early educators are paid an average of $15.36 per hour. Educators with a bachelor’s degree take a 33% pay penalty if they choose to work with infants and toddlers, rather than older children. At a rate of 34.4%, early educators are nearly 6 times more likely to be in poverty than K-12 teachers.

In this context, OSSE is requiring educators to attain higher credentials to improve the quality of our learning system by 2023. We know that better training and education translates to higher quality early learning experiences that set children up to reach their full potential. However, as the District takes important measures such as this that increase the barriers to entering the early learning profession, we must also compensate early educators for their credentials and experience with fair pay and benefits, as we do all educators.

Without pairing these strategies, a budget such as the one before us promises teachers of young children that if they find the time, energy, and resources to attain higher credentials, on top of their jobs and caring for their families, they will almost certainly see no meaningful compensation improvement. It incentivizes some of the most qualified educators, who have attained higher credentials, to leave the early learning workforce for jobs that pay them according to their qualifications. It urges other educators to leave the workforce for a lower-barrier job, including minimum wage jobs, with similar pay rather than pursue a credential. It deters new teachers from choosing early education. Without the Council’s intervention, the proposed budget sets us up for an early learning workforce exodus, is a danger to our child care quality and supply, a disservice to the District’s infants and toddlers, and a threat to our workforce at large.

Early educator supply has always been a challenge, but the conditions brought about by the COVID-19 have placed us in an even more precarious situation.  A decade ago, a 2011 report published by the DC Commission on Early Childhood Teacher Compensation found “chronically low rates of retention.” For the last year, early learning programs have suffered, with many forced to lay off staff and then struggling to rehire or replace them when it became possible to reopen, as teachers left the workforce to do lower-barrier, similar-paying work. Child care programs that know the value of their educators are in a bind: parents cannot afford what it costs for a program to pay its teachers fairly and subsidy reimbursement rates do not account for wages on par with other teachers, but educators are fleeing the field in search of better pay. In the past week, as data has surfaced about a national 15% drop in the child care workforce since before COVID-19, the alarm bells have been going off about the early childhood workforce crisis.

That’s why, when the Biden administration rolled out the American Rescue Plan, it encouraged states to make bold, visionary systems-improvements like workforce compensation increases. In addition to the $40 million the District received to make needed relief grants to child care programs, we received $25 million in Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) to address the long-term challenges early learning systems face and to demonstrate the need for increased federal funds to build child care. This is an incredible opportunity-  we can pair these short term funds with long-term investments using new revenue to build the system the District needs.

One final factor contributes to the urgency of what our community is asking for today: we recently learned that portions of the Birth-to-Three law that are not fully funded are subject to repeal, including the component that requires a workforce compensation study and increased pay to early educators. This is alarming and, along with the already looming threats to the workforce, makes funding workforce compensation a time-sensitive issue.

Chairman Mendelson and members of the DC Council, I urge you to allocate $60 million in local, recurring funding to fairly compensate early childhood educators and make an expanded, affordable, high-quality early childhood system possible.