Is the most precious thing in your life worth more than a poverty wage?

Activists are pushing for a $15 hourly base wage for preschool teachers and childcare workers. Many are currently college grads earning poverty wages, which have basically stagnated for nearly twenty years. The raise would be a major step toward providing livable wages for the service working families can’t live without. As the Fight for 15 movement gains momentum for fast food and retail workers, advocates are asking, if the people who prepare your lunch deserve a living wage, surely so do the people preparing our toddlers for school?

The campaign, launched this week by the Fight for $15 in collaboration with the Make it Work coalition and other groups, lays out a multi-pronged proposal for making “high quality, flexible care more affordable and accessible for all families”. Through federal funding and workforce reforms, this would provide “Guaranteed childcare subsidies for middle-and low-income families… to ensure that child care costs no more than 10 percent of pay,” and wage floor for educators and caregivers of $15 an hour. Families would have access to public preschool for all three and four year-olds, with greater investment in early childhood programs like Head Start. The proposal was also boosted in a new House resolution by Representatives Keith Ellison, Bonamici and Raul Grijalva supporting the $15-an-hour minimum wage and federally funded expansion of childcare and educational programs.

The proposal, which would raise the number of kids receiving subsidies to 26 million from the current 1.5 million, would extend programs like Headstart to full-day services, providing more stable schedules for clients and staff that accommodate unstable or fulltime workdays. Workers would be able to draw on financial support for supplemental “education, training and professional development.” They would also be encouraged to join “professional organizations” to strengthen working conditions, potentially opening the door to unionization.

To LiAnne Flakes, a Head Start educator in Tampa, Florida, the proposal helps close a growing gap she’s observed over her 22-year career: increasing demands being placed on childcare workers, but the pay hasn’t risen accordingly. Earning $10.75 an hour, without healthcare, she must live with roommates to afford housing. Her colleagues with kids are even more strained.

When I first started, we weren’t really considered educators…. Now you’re being required to go to school [and] to do certain things. Can I say the pay has evolved? No. I do believe that they expect you to go to school and have all these degrees… all these certificates, but don’t want to pay you for them…. I think that we are the most underpaid workers in America, as far as teachers and educators.

There’s a considerable price tag: an estimated $168 billion annually, but this could be achieved by progressive tax reforms like closing corporate loopholes. And it’s a chance for lawmakers on the left and right to make good on promises to invest more in boosting children’s “academic readiness.”

Marcy Whitebook, head of the University of California-Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Child Care Employment welcomes the focus on workforce issues in the early childhood discussion. “There isn’t ‘good cheap childcare.’ This is one of those situations where if you go for the bargain, you’re not going to get as good a product,” she says. Currently, impoverished workers care for impoverished kids, but “the only way you’re really going to make it work for kids and families is to make sure that you have a skilled and stable workforce.”

Lawmakers are finally realizing what parents understand intuitively: Early childhood caregivers and teachers provide kids with critical intellectual and social development, and perhaps most importantly, free up parents’ time to work. But the teacher who absorbs those challenges struggle to get by on typically under $11 an hour, leaving them unable to provide the basics for her own children.

“Although we see good early Childcare as a way to ameliorate poverty, the fact of the matter is,” Whitebook says, “we are generating poverty in the early childhood workforce.”

For the kids, an exhausted and financially stressed staff can’t provide an optimally nurturing classroom experience. Poverty may drive her out of the profession altogether—despite growing needs, the sector suffers massive turnover rates as high as 30 percent. Since perceptions of career prospects and fair pay can be key factors in worker retention, competitive wage scales (preschool teachers generally earn much less than similarly qualified kindergarten teachers) would foster a dedicated, career-track workforce.

The low payscales for childcare and early education staff, who are mostly women, reflects a general undervaluing of care work. This manifests in underfunding of early childhood programs, which suffer from under-equipped classes and overcrowded schools. Though lawmakers have eroded funding for early childhood services (in its recent funding bill Congress failed to provide dedicated funding for pre-Kindergarten), the programs research shows to be most effective, such as the Abbott pre-Kindergarten model that was piloted for low-income communities in New Jersey, run well over $12000 per student annually, compared with the average $8000 spent for each child in an average state-run pre-Kindergarten.

While grassroots pressure for cross-the-board wage hikes grows, the early childhood Fight for 15 faces a steep climb politically, since program and funding levels vary by state. But to Flakes, the money isn’t what matters most; it’s the sense that her government values her work as much as she does.

“I am one who loves what I do, and that’s why I do it,” says Flakes. To provide her classroom with basic school supplies, she adds, “I spend a lot of my own money, my own resources, my own finances to do what I do. So I just pray that it will come and get to a point where we are valued as early childhood educators.”

Demanding just wages for early childhood program workers highlights a new dimension in the struggle for work-life balance: not just in an individual parent’s life—helping a single mom juggle a job and childcare—but across a whole community—so that the collective labor of raising a child is balanced between the education and care sectors and the family. When everyone begins and ends their day knowing their families are valued and secure, both childhood and parenthood become that much richer.