The Pew Foundation has a new report out that details just how underpaid and under-credentialed our state-funded pre-kindergarten teachers really are. In general, I would agree with the conclusion drawn by W. Steve Barnett, one of the report's funders: "It's time to deliver on the promises states make to kids and treat prekindergarten with the same respect we accord the rest of our educational system."
But there's more to it than just that. Focusing on publicly employed pre-kindergarten teachers is a bit of a red herring. As we know, the United States doesn't have a very extensive public child care program. Only six percent of one- and two-year-olds are in public care, and 53 percent of three-to-five-year olds. Parents pay, on average, 60 percent of all costs for child care, and of those below 200 percent of the poverty line with children, only 21 percent receive help with costs. (More figures here.) But part of the reason this state of affairs holds is that child care is so cheap. Okay, it's not cheap for parents, but it's cheap relative to pre-school care in, say, European countries. And that's largely because the industry has managed to hold down the wages of prekindergarten teachers and other day-care workers in the private sector.
If these workers were unionized, or paid better, child care costs would soar to the point of being entirely unaffordable, just as in Europe. (More numbers: In Sweden, child care and preschool workers make 102 percent of the average female wage; here in the U.S. it's closer to 55 percent.) Virtually no one can afford private child care in Sweden, France, Austria, or Germany. As a result, a wide variety of public policy choices have been forced on those governments: Sweden and France have vast public child-care programs, while Austria and Germany have more flexible parental leave policies. The point, I guess, is that the structure of the labor market for child care largely reflects policy choices on the issue, and vice versa. (See Kimberly Morgan's work on this for more.) It's not enough just to point to low wages for certain teachers; at some point either the whole system will need revamping, or else we'll just have to be satisfied with underqualified and poverty-line teachers, inaccessible care for many parents, and a society that encourages people, by and large, not to have kids.