20,000 preschool teachers just got offered a free education

pre-k day camp

Ingrid Henlon is passionate about her job as a preschool teacher in Hartford, Conn., showing up at 7:30 a.m. each day to greet (sometimes crying students) and staying late when necessary to meet with parents. Despite that devotion, Henlon, 48, has to take a second job to make ends meet.

It is an unfortunate conundrum for those like Henlon who are working in early childhood education: Parents pay a lot, teachers get paid little.

“To be honest, at this moment, I’m not even managing, it’s like paycheck to paycheck,” she said. In addition to making car and rent payments on her roughly $42,000 salary, Henlon has more than $6,000 in student debt, that “doesn’t seem like it will ever finish.”

Henlon incurred that debt as part of her journey towards achieving her dream of earning a bachelor’s degree. She had cobbled together some scholarship money through a state program, but it wasn’t always available and so when she graduated in 2013, Henlon was left with some debt.

‘To be honest, at this moment, I’m not even managing, it’s like paycheck to paycheck.’

Ingrid Henlon, a preschool teacher in Hartford, Conn.

She had hoped the credential would also come with a raise, which might have made it easier to put a dent in the loans. But she later learned that wouldn’t be possible because the state-funded center where she’s worked for 27 years was short on funds.

Now one company is trying to make a dent in the problem. Bright Horizons, a firm that serves more than 100,000 children through child-care centers — many of them employer-based — in the U.S. and overseas, announced Wednesday that it would pay for an associate’s or bachelor’s degree for any of its employees.

Many of its 20,000 teachers wanted to further their education, said Stephen Kramer, chief executive at Bright Horizons. But many weren’t in the “optimal situation” to take advantage of the company’s existing tuition-reimbursement program. They couldn’t afford the up-front costs and, as non-traditional students with full-time jobs, they struggled to find a program that met their needs.

The benefit comes as some cities and states are upping the education requirements for preschool teachers and early childhood educators. In the past, a certification might have been enough to qualify them for the work, increasingly states and municipalities are requiring associate’s and bachelor’s degrees because that’s what research indicates works best for kids.

The push is part of a broader movement to both improve the quality of education for students and raise the profile of educators in the field, said Barbara Gault, the executive director of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. tank.

“It is a strategy for valuing early childhood teachers more, by thinking of them really as teachers, rather than how we often view them as low-paid unskilled labor,” Gault said.

Others agree with the initiative by companies such as Bright Horizons. “While we want this workforce to be able to advance their qualifications, placing the onus upon the individuals is really unreasonable, particularly given their economic status and the pay that’s involved,” said Lea Austin, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California-Berkeley.

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