Can a wage enhancement plan help retain early learning educators?


After New Orleans in 2022 scored its largest infusion of publicly funded dollars to expand early childhood learning, the plan’s architects had little time to celebrate. 

They had just one year to prepare for 1,000 more children ages 0-3 to enroll in early learning centers across the city. That meant purchasing supplies, upgrading classrooms, and setting up support services such as meals and infant and early childhood health consultations and screenings. 

Most of all, it meant finding and retaining quality teachers devoted to all those small, smiling faces. 

“Teaching is hard work, and so it means everything to encourage them to stay in this heart work at low pay,” said Rochelle Wilcox, a leader of the expansion campaign and founder of Wilcox Academy of Early Learning and co-founder of For Providers By Providers, a WKKF grantee.

In Louisiana, more than a third of teachers in early learning left their jobs in 2021, according to the American Education Resource Association, in part because of the low pay. On average, most teachers earn $11 an hour. That attrition rate was even higher – 46% – in child care centers that weren’t attached to a school or federally funded through Head Start. And most of these teachers weren’t just switching classrooms. They were leaving the field all together. 

Stabilizing the teacher workforce has been a constant goal, but it gained urgency after early learning advocates’ victory at the polls in 2022. In a city where nearly a quarter of all residents – and a third of all children – live in poverty, voters overwhelmingly agreed to a new property tax that secured $21 million a year for the next 20 years to expand early childhood education within the local City Seats program, which provides free access to early learning for low-income families. The state Legislature then agreed to match those funds for the 2023-2024 fiscal year. 

With the new seats quickly filling up, retaining good teachers became paramount for the 40 participating early learning centers. 

Teachers in the City Seats program start at $15 an hour. Even at that rate, turnover remained high.

Wilcox and other providers, city leaders and Agenda for Children, the nonprofit agency co-leading the expansion with NOLA Public Schools, put together a plan. Through the city’s Office of Youth and Families, Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration agreed to spend $2.4 million a year for two years on retaining early learning educators. Teachers in publicly funded programs who worked at least 30 hours a week over the course of the year would receive up to three $750 bonus checks, spaced three months apart. Nearly 900 teachers got their first bonus in December.

“Our teachers are not only dedicated to the children they serve. They have families of their own to care for,” said Jen Roberts, Agenda for Children’s CEO. “We must reward them for their hard work, and we must do everything we can to develop and grow a stable workforce for the generations of New Orleans’ children on the way.” 

For Krissy Coler, a teacher at Wilcox Academy, the bonus was timely. A mother of two young boys, she budgeted her holiday spending to make sure they could celebrate with family and still pay the bills, all at a time when child care centers are closed and she’s not earning a paycheck. 

“I was down to my last $200,” said Coler, who is the third generation in her family to work in early childhood education. “Then we ended up getting that money right before Christmas. It really made me less stressed.”

Coler believes deeply in her work and plans to remain a teacher, but she said she feels the pinch of the rising costs of living. 

“We could all use more because of the way life is set up,” she said.

The wage enhancement plan is showing early signs of success. About 84% of eligible teachers who received the December payment also received a second installment in March, meaning they are still working at their centers, according to Agenda for Children’s preliminary data. 

But early learning advocates know there is more work to do. The city funding expires after 2025, and average teacher salaries haven’t budged. 

“I’m excited about it, but it speaks to the fact that we haven’t gotten to the point where we’re paying them enough,” said Wilcox, whose goal is to raise teachers’ wages to at least $25 an hour. “We need to get them to a living, competitive wage.”

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