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PSLF Could Soon Include All Early Childhood Education Workers


The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has announced it’s considering expanding Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) to early childhood education (ECE) workers employed at for-profit businesses.

“Early childhood educators help young children learn, grow, and thrive. But they are often poorly compensated, and student debt is a problem,” said U.S. Under Secretary of Education James Kvaal. “If these educators can access PSLF, we can help our youngest children, their families, and their communities.”

ED noted that the majority of ECE workers and graduates are women of color or immigrants. While PSLF already offers relief to ECE employees of nonprofit institutions, that’s not where the majority of ECE workers are employed, said Mark Kantrowitz, author of How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid and director of the Research Science Institute, a summer research program for high schoolers at MIT.

“Public service jobs include public education, social work, and early childhood education — it’s already in the definition. But public service requires the employers to either be a government organization, federal, state, local or other, or a 501c3 organization,” said Kantrowitz. “[ED] wants to expand it to include all ECE, or more, and so the question they have is, how would they specify under what circumstances should this for-profit employer qualify?”

Kantrowitz said ED is seeking information from ECE personnel, researchers, institutions, public interest groups, and others to learn the best ways to apply PSLF to for-profit ECE employees while protecting their earnings. ED has offered 30 days to collect this feedback.

“The obvious risk is that someone will set up a for-profit enterprise and not pay employees very well, and say, ‘You’ll get your loan forgiven, so we don’t need to pay you as much,’” said Kantrowitz. “Any good thing can have potential for abuse.”

Dr. Lindsay Meeker, visiting professor of early childhood education and director of the Center for Best Practices in early childhood education at Western Illinois University.Dr. Lindsay Meeker, visiting professor of early childhood education and director of the Center for Best Practices in early childhood education at Western Illinois University.Dr. Lindsay Meeker, a visiting professor of ECE and director of the Center for Best Practices in ECE at Western Illinois University, said this announcement from ED has been a long time coming and might bring more students back to finish their ECE educations or earn new certifications.

“These are definitely our most underpaid educators, and when we look at inequity scales, in order for them to reach the top tier [pay] in most states, they still need to have a bachelor’s degree and comparable credentials and licensure. Black and brown women are some of the lowest paid in the field,” said Meeker. “They’re educating our youngest learners and we know, with the expansion of preschool programming, Illinois alone is looking at adding an additional 5,000 preschool seats. We want the highest quality there, and we don’t want to leave infant and toddler teachers behind.”

When the state of Illinois enacted the Early Childhood Access Consortium for Equity Scholarship (ECACE) Program, which funded ECE workers’ pursuit of credentials or degrees in their field, Meeker said students, particularly students of color, came flooding back to their institution. They experienced 300% influx. Retention levels of those who received the grant were 96% across the state.

“It screamed loudly that it’s not that the ECE community doesn’t want to upscale, it’s that, until we figure out pay equity, the investment in education isn’t possible without some kind of commitment from state or federal government to say, ‘While we work on pay equity, we’ll help you upscale,’” said Meeker. “Loan forgiveness could have a similar effect nationwide, if it felt like there was a way for ECE workers to reach their goal and not be drowning in debt.”

Dr. Travis Smith, an assistant professor of educational leadership, policy, and law at Alabama State University, said he found it “extremely soothing” to hear that educators might finally be rewarded and recognized for the duty they perform for the country.

“Education is a service field, and a lot of people’s pay does not reflect the work they do,” said Smith. “The PSLF program is an opportunity to give back to those individuals who dedicate their lives to education, to recognize them and honor them for their work. Childcare is a major issue and concern within the U.S. The way society is operational, we need childcare, and childcare is expensive. Those who go into the field are passionate about working with our youth, which we need. Those are developmental years for our babies.”

Smith and Meeker agreed that this step taken by ED will hopefully provide more opportunities for ECE workers, particularly as their work is not only undervalued, but underrecognized.

“There’s a heavy misunderstanding of what really happens in the classroom, our first leverage points for early math, literacy, P-21 skills. People still see ECE as child care. When you dig in, their jobs are as complex if not more than our K-12 educators,” said Meeker. “When we look at per-child allocation we see in funding structures for K-12, then for children from birth to 5, there’s no comparison. People aren’t getting rich running childcare or preschool. Most directors would tell you they’re barely making it.”

 Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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