Dianna Gordon (copy)

Dianna Gordon is the head 4K teacher at Waupun Preschool Education that offers a 3K and a 4K program for children in the Waupun area. She is pictured above in January 2017 with her students discussing the letter B.

In 1873, when many American children still studied in one-room schoolhouses, the first public kindergarten in the United States opened in the small shipbuilding town of Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Today, as public interest in early childhood education increases nationwide, Wisconsin must continue to invest in its youngest citizens — an investment that will require revaluing the work of early childhood educators.

History shows us that Wisconsin has long been an innovator in early education and in expanding access to early education across socioeconomic lines. In the 19th century, immigrants from Germany brought with them to our state the concept of the “children’s garden,” a philosophy of play-based learning tailored to the developmental needs of the very young.

Wisconsin’s original state constitution of 1848 declared that schools should be “free and without charge for tuition to all children” as young as 4 — an unusually low age threshold at the time.

While Wisconsin’s investment in early education has waxed and waned since the 19th century, recent reports rank our state fourth in the nation for access to 4-year-old kindergarten (4K). Over 70 percent of Wisconsin’s 4-year-olds are currently enrolled in 4K, whether through public, private or community-based programs. This is no small achievement. Wisconsin should be proud of its progress in this domain.

Studies link high-quality early education to positive outcomes that ripple outward, benefiting individual children, families, communities and society at large.

Not only do children who attend 4K typically enter kindergarten with stronger academic and social preparation, but children from low-income families often experience long-term benefits. In adulthood, these children will be more likely to attain higher education and higher earnings and less likely to enter the criminal justice system. Accordingly, all families should have the option of accessing early education resources.

Unfortunately, however, if we take Wisconsin’s national ranking at face value, we miss the significant economic, racial and gender injustices enmeshed in our state’s early education system. Not only do these injustices violate the rights of individuals and communities, but they also weaken the system as a whole.

Educator compensation, an issue rooted in gender inequality, is one injustice threatening the system that has received scant attention in recent debates. This is a major oversight given the numerous studies indicating that skilled educators are a crucial factor in helping children succeed.

Currently, in a field composed of approximately 98 percent women, early childhood educators working in child care centers in Wisconsin earn $11.35 an hour on average. Thirty-six percent of them, many of whom hold two- or four-year degrees, must turn to some form of public assistance.

It should not, therefore, be surprising that early education programs in Wisconsin experience a 21 percent turnover rate. While Wisconsin faces a serious teacher shortage on a broader scale, early education in our state has reached a crisis point.

That this crisis has not bubbled over until recently may have something to do with the fact that early childhood educators tend to be unusually generous, resourceful and creative people. As someone who has worked in the field, I know how adept early childhood educators must become at making something out of very little.

Here is a complete list of the items I was given before my first day of teaching kindergarten in Milwaukee: four tables, 24 chairs, a teacher’s desk and chair, one bookshelf, and two sets of curriculum books, one for reading and one for math.

Along with my students’ low-income families, I was expected to supply everything else — from pencils to tissue boxes. Over the next three years, in addition to spending hundreds of dollars out of my own small salary to fund my classroom, I began transforming objects around me into tools for learning: toilet paper rolls, ice cube trays, branches on the side of the road.

Nevertheless, I remember feeling guilty when one boy walked in on the first day of school and bluntly cried out, “But where are all the toys?”

To understand the teacher shortage, we must remember that early childhood education is a profession that has historically relied upon the exploitation of women’s labor, particularly the labor of women of color. This history helps explain why, despite being required to meet all the characteristics of professionals — to have high levels of training and expertise — early childhood educators are still forced to work for poverty-level wages.

When the first public kindergartens opened in Wisconsin, teaching was one of the few occupations available to women. In the 20th century, when women were expected to marry, and teaching could still ostensibly serve as a temporary or supplementary source of income, the United States continued to get away with paying teachers and child care workers very little.

Our country’s failure to compensate its early childhood educators demonstrates not only an undervaluing of women’s work, but also an undervaluing of forms of emotional labor traditionally associated with the feminine: being sensitive, nurturing and caring.

In a time when these characteristics seem in short supply, it would benefit us to look to early education in our efforts to build a stronger, healthier, more just society.

Because many families cannot afford to pay more for child care, expanding early education will require public investment. Wisconsin has the potential to be a leader in this national movement. Let’s start by fairly compensating early childhood educators and by challenging the gender assumptions that shape how we view this most important work.

Erica Kanesaka Kalnay is a former early childhood teacher. She is currently a doctoral candidate in English literary studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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