Nice Work if You Can Afford It

August 18, 2021

The time for change is now. We can (and must) do it.

Being a teacher, a woman, and an early childhood educator is financially hazardous (13), according to CASJE’s recent report, Compensation: The Salaries and Benefits of Jewish Educators.

This information is not new, and it is not unique to early childhood Jewish education.

What seems noteworthy is the level of dissatisfaction with compensation that teachers in these environments expressed (12). The low level of compensation is “hurt[ing]” educators, raising a concern for the educators that they will not be able to eke out a living (19). Indeed, half of America's early childhood educators live in households in which at least one person receives public assistance.[1The report suggests that wages are really only a problem for educators who have left the field (1); given that 80% of early childhood centers across the country are reporting a teacher shortage,[2however, I believe we can make the correlation between compensation and career commitment.

These findings belie the report’s multiple citations suggesting that a “sense of mission or favorable workplace environment” (16) can make up for low wages.

For me, this report signals the death knell of the myth of the early childhood educator who works a few hours a week to make pocket money. [God help the next person who rebukes a dissatisfied educator by reminding them that they didn’t go into this for the money! Did they go into it for the food stamps?!] In its place, an alarming portrait emerges: The caretakers and growers of our children and our Jewish future are being hurt in our employ. And in the words of Twisted Sister, they’re not gonna’ take it.

From a values perspective, the Jewish community can and should intervene, which will allow us to live our values and invest in our children. From a more mundane perspective, we have to intervene immediately in order for America’s parents to get back to work and restore their mental health. That is, after a 40% drop in enrollment during the first year of the pandemic, America’s childcare centers are struggling to rebuild their staff as children return. In a July study of American early childhood centers,[378% reported low wages as the main obstacle to recruitment of educators, and 81% percent said it's the reason teachers leave. 

Now is the time for the Jewish community to take up this challenge. As with any complex challenge, we need a vision for success, long-term commitment, and a multifaceted approach. Here are a few ways we can advance compensation:

Let’s begin by raising our expectations to pay parity and set our sights on offering salaries that are slightly above the average starting salary for college graduates. Pay parity means that in day schools, early childhood educators should be paid on the same scale as all of the other teachers. (If the credentials among the early childhood educators are not comparable, then the school should support teachers along the path toward increasing their credentials.) In all schools, pay parity can mean aiming for salaries and benefits comparable with the local public K-12 system. (Since public school teachers do not teach during the summer and during winter and spring breaks, the comparison should be by the hourly rate rather than the annual salary.) A cross-national look at teacher recruitment suggests a few relevant points: that competitive starting salaries are key to drawing in teachers, with significant wage increases shown to be relatively unimportant;[4] that the first five years can be focused on cementing a teacher’s love for their work and paying for their credentialing; and that compensation bonuses at critical career junctures can be valuable to teachers.[5]

And where can centers find the funding to make these changes to compensation? The first place to look is the public sector. August and September 2021 are the prime months to let our elected officials in Washington know that we support their current efforts to make a massive investment in early childhood education. If this legislation passes as currently envisioned, then all three- and four-year old Americans would have the right to a free, high-quality education. With a mixed delivery system (in which Jewish and other early childhood centers could access federal funds to run their programs) and pay parity with local K-12 schools, federal funding would enable us to properly compensate educators. In New York City, where universal three and four year education has rolled out, Jewish centers have seen enrollment growth and wage hikes.[6]

Another place to look for funding is in the coffers of and relationship with the host institution. If your community center or synagogue is making a profit off of the early childhood center, then that means there is money available that should rightfully be going to pay teachers a living wage. In addition, host institutions need to empower early childhood directors to make their own decisions about compensation instead of requiring that they be set by the board or executive director. Fundraising, endowments, and legacy giving are additional revenue sources that have not become the norm in early childhood centers (often due to their being tied to larger host institutions).

Change to compensation is both necessary and possible. As we enter the shmitah (sabbatical) year, we have the opportunity and responsibility to heed our tradition’s call for economic adjustment and reset. Early childhood education remains one of the most powerful and positive forces in the life of a child and a society.[7] For their part, Jewish early childhood centers stimulate the Jewish engagement of families in multiple domains, including behaviors, attitudes and values, institutional attachment, home practice, connection and interaction with friends and community, Jewish educational choices, and meaning making.[8] This work is essential, highly valuable, and teachers love doing it.[9] In thinking about teacher compensation, as with any financial problem, it is best to look right at the data despite our tendency to look away, and this report has given us that gift. And as a financial planner would, when we look at the problem and are clear about the reasons it warrants fixing, we can commit to investing in a strategic, long-term, and multifaceted solution.

Anna Hartman is the Director of Early Childhood Excellence at the Jewish United Fund in Chicago and she is the Director of the Paradigm Project. She is a member of Shma Koleinu, a collective of individuals dedicated to listening to and advocating for children, families, and early childhood education.

[1]Whitebook, M., McLean, C., Austin, L.J.E., & Edwards, B. (2018). Early childhood workforce index – 2018. Berkeley, CA: Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, University of California, Berkeley.

[2]NAEYC. (July 2021). Progress and peril: Child care at a crossroads.

[3]NAEYC. (July 2021). Progress and peril: Child care at a crossroads.

[4]How the world’s best-performing schools come out on top (Rep.). (2007). McKinsey & Company.

[5]Auguste, B., Kihn, P., & Miller, M. (2010). Closing the talent gap: Attracting and retaining top third graduates to a career in teaching (Rep.). McKinsey & Company.

[6]Shma Koleinu. (2021, June 7). Universal preschool: What could this mean for the Jewish community? eJewish Philanthropy. 


[8] Halle, T., Rosen, M., Karberg, E., Cook, M., Schwartz, H., Huz, I., Arkin, M., Rushovich, B., and Bamdad, T. (2020). Exploring Associations Between Jewish Early Care, Education and Engagement. Washington, DC: Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education.

[9] Of the early childhood Jewish educators who participated in a 2021 Leading Edge Employee Experience Survey, 83% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I feel proud to work for my organization;” 77% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “The mission of my organization makes me feel like I’m making a difference through my work;” 77% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “My role provides me with opportunities to do challenging and interesting work.”