Start Early. Start well.

September 13, 2019

Nebraska's Early Childhood Teachers Love Their Jobs, But They Can't Afford Them—and It's Hurting Nebraska

Matthew Hansen workforce column 9 13 19

By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor

Kira loves her job as a toddler teacher at a Lincoln early child care center. She adores the kids, the parents, her fellow teachers, even her boss. She loves taking care of other peoples’ babies, using her college degree to prepare them for a better life.

Which is why it’s so hard for Kira to admit that yes, she likely will soon look for other work.

“I’m in a place where I’m truly happy,” she says of her job. “Truly. Except for this one thing.”

That one thing is Kira’s bleak financial reality—a shockingly bad dollars-and-cents situation faced by early childhood educators and care providers across Nebraska and the country. 

Kira makes roughly $12 an hour at the center despite having her bachelor’s degree and her elementary teaching certificate—and the college debt that goes along with it. She makes less than many fast food employees, less than many cashiers at big-box retail stores, less than your average dog groomer.

That meager pay is one of the issues that the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission—a blue-ribbon panel of early childhood experts, economic development leaders, teachers, the owner of a child care center, a state senator, and college deans—is seeking to solve as it prepares a call to action report expected to be released in January. 

And that pay is what’s pushing Kira toward a gut-wrenching decision: Her dream job, or her family’s future. 

Kira and her husband, a church employee, want to have a child soon. But they doubt they can afford to start a family.

If Kira has a child, she knows she won’t be able to afford to send her baby to the high-quality child care center where she works. Not on her salary.

“It hurts to think about that,” says Kira, who requested that her last name and the name of her employer not be used in this story. “It breaks my heart.”

It’s high time we pose the question: Why are early childhood teachers like Kira being put in a position where they must pick between a job they love and a paycheck they can live on?

And it’s high time, experts say, to face this reality: Underpaid teachers will continue to flee a field that provides Nebraska’s children a crucial foundation in life. These revolving-door departures can and do harm our youngest kids during vital years of brain development.

Many will leave even though they, like Kira, love their jobs. They will depart because they can’t afford to stay.

“Simply put: She isn’t getting paid what she should,” says Susan Sarver, the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska’s director of workforce planning and development. “It’s because we as a society don’t properly understand or value what she does.”

The Buffett Institute published the 2017 results of a statewide survey on early childhood teacher pay, turnover, and job stress.

The results were grim.

The median pay for a center-based Nebraska child care teacher: $18,706 a year. That’s an income that puts a family of four far below the poverty line.

And, in fact, many early childhood teachers and caregivers live at or below the poverty line. One of every four center-based teachers rely on some form of public assistance. They do so even though roughly half of them have earned a bachelor’s or graduate degree.

Like Kira, early childhood teachers tend to like their jobs. In surveys they report feeling respected, influential, and satisfied with their work.

But these same teachers are often stressed. Nearly 90% of early care providers reported some symptoms of depression.

All this leads to a predictably crummy result: Each year, 26% of early childhood teachers who work in child care settings quit their jobs, according to the Buffett Institute statewide survey. 

By far the most common reason given for a departure: low pay.

The low pay, related stress and rampant turnover would be bad enough if early childhood teachers simply needed to keep the kids in their care well-fed and safe, experts say.

But a modern understanding of early childhood education illustrates why teachers now do far more than that. A young child’s brain is developing at hyper speed, research indicates, and that child needs consistent, high-quality interactions with adults to build the brain architecture needed for later success.

That woefully underpaid early childhood teacher, a person who loves her work but reports high levels of stress and turnover related to her meager pay, could in fact be the most important teacher in your child’s life.

“We simply can’t have a system that ratchets up the expectations for quality but doesn’t pay them more,” says Cathey Huddleston-Casas, the Buffett Institute’s associate director of workforce planning and development, who also points out that most parents can’t afford to pay a penny more for child care. “The good people in the field are there because of their generosity, not ours…The system is broken. We need to fix it.”

The Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission, that group of 40 education, early childhood, and economic development leaders in Nebraska, has been meeting for the past three years, formulating a plan that could offer a path forward for increasing pay, raising standards, ending teacher shortages, and adding funding into the early childhood system.

The commission’s members plan a public rollout in early 2020, highlighting the many reasons why improving the conditions of the early childhood workforce benefits Nebraska’s present and future.

John Spatz, a commission member and executive director of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, says he often makes the case to politicians and business leaders that we need to view early childhood as not a cost, but a key investment. 

There are 27,000 babies born in Nebraska each year, he says. If they all got high-quality early childhood education, the research shows that more of those babies would become taxpaying citizens. The research also shows we will spend far less money on things like social programs and prisons when they become adults.

Spatz also has a personal case to make for improving the pay of the early childhood teachers he sees as crucial to this state’s future. 

It’s his daughter, Rosalyn. She’s a preschooler.

“If you ask her what she wants to be, she says, ‘I want to be a preschool teacher,’” Spatz says. “As a parent I’m like, ‘hmmmmmmm.’

“If she is, I might have to support her financially…That kind of made it hit home for me. We have to get to the point where early childhood teachers can survive and thrive doing what they love.”

Kira is doing what she loves. She’s surviving, but barely. She and her husband have tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, plus a mortgage on a fixer-upper house they can’t afford to fix up, plus a car payment. 

They feel stressed about money nearly every day. They talk about money several times a week. At least once a month Kira spends a weekend afternoon reviewing expenses, looking for ways to save $5 here or $10 there.

There is never enough money. She’s thinking about taking a second job at night. She’s praying that her car doesn’t break down and their hot water heater doesn’t bust.

And she’s keeping her eyes peeled for elementary school job openings. She’s certified to teach Kindergarten through sixth grade. Those teachers make double her salary.

It seems like a no-brainer, until you consider that Kira has wanted to work with toddlers since she was a teenager. Until you remember she is doing exactly the job she wants to do, and exactly the job that the kids she cares for, and the state of Nebraska, need her to do.

Until you remember that Kira would for sure stay…except she knows if she has her own child, she won’t be able to afford to send her kid to the high-quality center where she herself works.

Kira takes care of other peoples’ babies every day in Lincoln. On her salary, she feels like she couldn’t take care of her own.

“I hate the idea that, every day with the kids (at the center) is an adventure, and I love them so much, but I am going to have to leave them behind,” Kira says. “But that’s my exact problem right now.

“I love where I am. I hate that I need more.”


Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.

His columns can be read at

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