As Gov. Gretchen Whitmer considers continuing historic investments in early childhood this fiscal year, this is a moment of opportunity to address the inequitable pay structure that makes it difficult to retain and attract high-quality early childhood educators.

Often overlooked, early childhood educators play a vital role in our children’s life trajectories, creating a solid foundation for their K-12 learning. Charged with fostering the well-being and development of little ones from their first foods and first steps to reading their first words, early childhood educators provide a critical service to students’ academic success and to the health of families.

Decades of research show that participating in high-quality early childhood education leads to better outcomes in almost every facet of life: academic, social, emotional, physical and financial. Not only that, further studies find that the children of children who attend high-quality early childhood education programs also benefit through stronger family dynamics, more stable employment and less justice system involvement.

Yet despite the evidence that high-quality early childhood educators are critical to support successful beginnings for students, they are among the lowest-paid members of the workforce.

Consider that, in Michigan, an early childhood teacher makes less per hour than retail associates, sanitation workers, babysitters and even dog walkers.

While the specific facts and figures may vary nationwide, one common refrain can be heard from ECE providers across the country: “We’re barely hanging on; we need better pay.” Research agrees with them. And the economics are clear, families cannot afford to shoulder the cost.

As the state considers funding priorities for the fiscal year ahead, prioritizing training and compensation for early childhood educators should be a top priority to ensure that all Michigan students begin their education with a strong start and seamless transition.

Why do early childhood educators — and especially educators of color — earn poverty wages in exchange for their passion and dedication?

To address the early childhood salary gap it’s essential to understand some of the root causes.

Insufficient funding and the cost of providing high-quality programs make fair compensation challenging for early childhood education directors. Even before the pandemic, providers operated with razor-thin margins, around 1%, and that was assuming they had full or near-full enrollment in their programs.

Since COVID-19, 87% of Michigan providers report experiencing hiring challenges due to unlivable wages and a lack of benefits. In turn, this means families must be turned away, as providers cannot retain enough staff to maintain appropriate ratios.

Lower enrollment leads to even less in the coffers, creating a vicious and unsustainable cycle. This is to say nothing of the logistical and economic effects of the pandemic, through which providers and families contended with sick closures, quarantines and loss of consistency and income for both parties.

While kindergarten teachers receive a salary that is more than double the pay of their early childhood education counterparts, along with health benefits and paid time off, early childhood teachers often qualify for public assistance and receive no employment benefits. Further, ECE educators of color experience a wage gap with their white colleagues, putting them at the bottom of educational professionals in terms of earnings.

The crisis facing early childhood education is not unique to Michigan, but we have a unique opportunity to address the situation here, as state leaders have increasingly signaled a need to prioritize early childhood education.

Additionally, the rationale for better early childhood educator compensation goes beyond the practical and ethical considerations: Early childhood expertise can strengthen transitions to grades K-12.

Meaningfully incorporating the input and expertise of early childhood professionals requires that their status as professional educators be valued. Teachers in the early years are credentialed and trained members of the workforce. Yet, they do not receive wages that suggest a shared respect for the time, commitment, knowledge or vital services they provide. Disparities in compensation pose a significant barrier, limiting the impact that early childhood educators can have on developing infrastructure, policies and practices that strengthen educational transitions.

Early childhood educators and administrators hold both educational and experiential expertise in early childhood development and pedagogy. That professional knowledge plays a critical role in strong transitions to — and success in — early elementary environments. Early childhood educators can inform better instructional and curricular alignment between Pre-K and K-3 to better meet the developmental needs of students.

For instance, alignment initiatives that emphasize the play-based and small-group instructional practices more often found in preschool classrooms could smooth out the Pre-K to third grade transition phase and lead to better learning outcomes.

For students to benefit from the wisdom of early childhood educators at scale, early childhood educators must be properly compensated and engaged as the professionals they are.

Pursuing compensation parity for early childhood educators with their K-12 counterparts will allow for the recruitment and retention of exceptional early childhood teachers. Importantly, providing equitable pathways to becoming an early childhood educator will also support a diverse and highly qualified workforce.

One might suggest raising tuition rates to provide the wages the profession deserves, yet that would be untenable for too many households. The Economic Policy Institute considers “affordable” childcare to be at or below 7% of a household’s annual income. In Michigan, infant care already consumes a staggering 19% of the median household income, and four-year-old care accounts for 15%. As it stands currently, less than 10% of Michigan families can afford ECE for their children. Raising tuition rates would push even more families to a breaking point.

Instead, state leaders can consider ways to address these differences as they consider how to invest more in early childhood education, especially amid discussion about historic funding in Gov. Whitmer’s proposed FY24 budget.

At the same time, other systemic improvements should be considered alongside any new investment to ensure the strongest foundations for our youngest learners, as noted in a recent report by The Education Trust-Midwest.

The time is long overdue for structural changes to strengthen the early childhood education system.

If we care about strong starts and successful transitions for all Michigan students, we must first invest more in the people who facilitate them.

This opinion piece appeared in The Detroit News. Denise Smith is implementation director for Hope Starts Here. Jennifer DeNeal is director of Policy and Research at The Education Trust-Midwest. Hayley Butler is a policy, communications and systems consultant at Hayley Butler, LLC. Jennifer Heymoss is vice president of initiatives and public policy at the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.