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Recent Projects:

Improving Compensation for Colorado’s Early Childhood Educators

The Context: Low pay and a lack of benefits pose barriers to retaining ECE educators  

Colorado is working to expand early childhood services to more families across the state, yet high turnover rates–caused by a lack of comprehensive benefits and low pay–pose a significant barrier to attracting and retaining talent.  

While challenges with early childhood compensation are national, the high cost of living in Colorado makes the under-compensation of the ECE workforce particularly difficult for educators. Despite their qualifications and the unique demands of their profession, ECE professionals earn significantly less than their K-12 colleagues, often putting them near the poverty line. To address these issues, Colorado sought Afton Partners’ assistance in facilitating a process to design salary structures that support a thriving workforce and better reflect the professionalism and value of early childhood teachers.   

The Goal: Improve early childhood workforce compensation and benefits structures  

Building on previous work done for the Early Childhood Workforce 2020 plan, the Colorado Department of Early Childhood launched Colorado’s Early Childhood Compensation & Benefits Task Force. Specifically, they were charged with designing a compensation and benefits plan that would:  

  • Demonstrate a commitment to educators’ financial well-being  
  • Support the recruitment and retention of early childhood professionals  
  • Increase the perceived professionalism of ECE educators  
  • Provide a starting point for continuous early childhood system improvement  

The Approach: Lived experience leads solution-finding  

Although ECE educator compensation remains a widely shared challenge across the nation, we know cut-and-paste approaches simply don’t work. To ensure that final recommendations spoke specifically to the Colorado workforce’s needs and context, Afton Partners collaborated with the Center for Early Learning and Funding Equity and Pillars Research & Strategy to support research efforts and facilitate the Task Force in designing solutions.  

Consisting of experts in early childhood policy, workforce development, higher education, advocacy, research, policy implementation, community business, and more, the Task Force created an intentional statewide stakeholder engagement process to gather feedback from early childhood educators who work in a variety of roles and setting types.  

To ensure we captured the voices of as many early childhood educators as possible, we cast our net far and wide, recruiting both English and Spanish speakers to provide input. For our Spanish speakers, we provided facilitation services in Spanish to ensure they were able to share in their native language. Our virtual setting ensured providers wouldn’t have to travel or arrange care for their own children and allowed us to talk with individuals across the state.  

Our focus group timing—scheduled during standard naptimes and evening hours—provided the best opportunities for providers to participate without compromising their regular job responsibilities.  

Finally, our monetary stipend and professional development credit offered through Colorado’s state system–provided to everyone who participated in the focus groups–was a tangible way of honoring their time and input. Through these intentional logistical decisions, we gathered robust and essential input that directly impacted the Task Force’s final recommendations.     

The Outcomes: A plan for better pay, and a foundation for future improvements  

As a result of the analysis and interviews, the Task Force:   

  • Created three salary scales tied to education, experience, and role representing the variability in the average cost of living across Colorado.   
  • Recommended an early childhood educator stipend as a short-term solution to retain early childhood educators.  

Taken together, the salary scales and stipend recommendation are intended to provide a road map and formal guidance for state action and investment in fairly compensating the early childhood workforce.   

When we anchored the salary scales to elementary teacher salaries, we found that elementary school teachers are also under-compensated relative to the rest of the nation. This led to a recommendation for the state to explore and increase teacher salaries more broadly.  


Our Insights

The benefits of stakeholder engagement 

Afton’s stakeholder engagement led to powerful realizations that numbers-based data couldn’t tell us:   

  1. Stipends are more impactful than bonuses to many educators, and   
  2. Health insurance, retirement, and paid time off are the most valuable benefits to educators.   

These insights directly influenced the Task Force’s recommendations and set the stage for phase two of the work, which focuses on the development of comprehensive benefits.   

A meaningful step closer to sustainable, comprehensive benefits for early educators 

To pursue progress on the recommendations, the report also included consideration for state funding, including the completion of an up-to-date, comprehensive cost and revenue model and a funding mechanism to provide sustained investment in educator compensation.  

Ultimately, by implementing these recommendations, we believe that Colorado can increase retention, lessen the strain on staff due to shortages, and decrease public benefit program use by early childhood staff. Many early childhood educators currently rely on public programs like Medicaid. For this and many other reasons, comprehensive benefits packages will serve as a crucial complement and an important next step toward improving compensation.  

For a deeper dive into the development of salary scales and stipends in Colorado, check out the final report here 

Stats & Impact

We believe the implementation of these recommendations will have broad, meaningful impacts on the state of Colorado, including:

  • An increase in wages for workers to afford the high cost of living in the state.
    • The current average pay for a child care worker in Colorado is ~$16/hour or $30,350 annually; compared to $57,870 annually for a Kindergarten teacher.
  • A decrease in turnover and staffing shortages in the early childhood field.
    • Providers are reporting staff turnover rates ranging from 16-22%.
    • 72% of providers are having significant challenges filling open positions.
  • A decrease in use of public benefit programs by early childhood staff.
    • 1/3 of Colorado’s early childhood workers receive public assistance.