COMMENTARY: My name is Tina Sanchez. I am an early childhood educator in Las Cruces. Every day I work with young children in our state, and at the end of every day I earn less than a dog walker.
That’s right, the average wage for early educators in the state of New Mexico is $9.98 per hour. The average wage for a person who walks dogs for a living is $12.03 per hour.
My job is hard, and needless to say, the pay leaves me feeling unappreciated, as does being called a babysitter. In fact, up until a few years ago the State of New Mexico still referred to my job title as a babysitter in legislative code. This is a slap in the face, seeing as I work in a classroom of 12 three- to five-year-olds.
I follow detailed lesson plans. I coordinate learning activities with kids before filling out child observation per state requirements. While I am frustrated by the lack of respect for this work, I love being with kids. I love watching them learn and grow.
But love won’t pay my bills.
Without me parents wouldn’t have a reliable and safe place for their children. Without me kids would be less likely to develop the skills that will help them be prepared for kindergarten and beyond. I am currently working towards a child development certificate (CDC) with the hopes of obtaining an associates degree in early childhood education from Doña Ana Community College. But even if I earn my degree, if I want to get paid as much or more than a person who walks dogs for a living, I will likely have to leave my private early learning center and the work that I love and am committed to.
This shows you where our state’s priorities are. Educators like myself earn less than dog walkers because our elected leaders refuse to invest in early learning centers like mine.
We need state investment in our centers, because parents pay more to place an infant in a childcare center in New Mexico than they do for in-state college tuition. And still, early-learning center owners struggle to keep their doors open, let alone raise wages for teachers like myself. All of this is compounded by the fact that 35,000 kids are eligible for child-care subsidies and are not receiving them. 8,000 of those kids have lost access since Governor Martinez was elected. And still, Monique Jacobson, the cabinet secretary of the Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD), has never asked the state for an increase in her childcare budget to address the substantial access gap and low wages that plague the industry.
This is why so many people are fighting so hard for more funding — because working families so desperately need change, and those in charge of the program do not listen to our needs.
It has been determined that the single most important element of high-quality early childhood education is the compensation, consistency, education and training of childcare teachers. Offering reimbursements to centers that would allow owners to pay competitive wages would allow highly trained early educators to remain in the field. We, in turn, can help kids get ahead and gain attributes and skills that employers of today and tomorrow are looking for.
Crime and a weak labor force were cited in Forbes magazine as the primary reasons that New Mexico was ranked 47th among best states to do business last year. If our state hopes to expand early childhood education programing to more kids, how can we do that if teachers who provide high-quality care are leaving the field due to wages that only compete with dog walkers and burger joints? We can’t.
It seems to me our state has a choice — it can invest in early learning centers like mine and reap more of the benefits that a high-quality early childhood education can offer, or continue down the current path of low pay, high turnover, and severe gaps in access. The current course seems backwards to me in a state where school test scores are going down, graduation rates are the worst in the country, juvenile and violent crime rates continue to rise and businesses leave our state because they cannot find an educated workforce.
An investment in dignified wages for teachers and getting more kids enrolled seems like a commonsense investment for a common good. But what do I know? I’m just a babysitter who earns less than a dog walker.
Tina Sanchez is secretary of the Early Educators United board — part of the alliance People for the Kids, which is comprised of parents, owners, directors and educators who strive to attain and provide access to high quality early education in New Mexico.