Early childhood teachers say they are elated at the Government's partial pay parity move but vow to keep fighting until they are valued the same as their kindergarten peers.
Education Minister Chris Hipkins announced today that Budget 2021 will include a $170 million pay parity scheme for the ECE sector.
The sector has long called for parity with kindergartens, with teachers having the same qualifications and doing the nearly identical work being paid on average over 30 per cent less, and in some cases up to 50 per cent less.
The first step would see the minimum pay for those in a collective agreement moving from $49,862 to $51,358 from July 1.
Another set of higher funding rates will be made available from July 1, 2022, ultimately matching the first six steps of the kindergarten teacher collective agreement, with another four steps remaining to reach full parity.
When Megan White started working in the sector 12 years ago, politicians were discussing pay parity.
But this slipped away and after nearly a decade of basically zero funding increases for the sector, morale among staff was dropping, and recruitment becoming near impossible with a 50 per cent drop in teachers' training.
"We had friends working in kindergartens who we'd done the same degrees with, doing exactly the same work, but being paid over 30 per cent more than us - it was just wild," said White, head teacher at Capital Kids Co-operative in Newtown, Wellington.
"Teachers could get paid more to do unqualified jobs, so why would they stay in an underpaid, undervalued, hard job. Some days you really questioned why you kept doing it.
"But we all do it for these beautiful tamariki - all teachers have such big hearts. We know the first 1000 days are the most important in a child's life, we love the curriculum, we all wanted to stay in these jobs.
"So this news today is super exciting and something we have been waiting a very long time for. It's been a rollercoaster."
White said she hoped the announcement would attract more people to train to be ECE teachers.
"We have a big teacher shortage at the moment. It is a big problem when someone is sick as we really struggle to get someone qualified to come in."
The $170m - part of a pre-Budget announcement this morning at Capital Kids Co-operative in Newtown, Wellington - would be spread across four years, Hipkins said.
The pay gap had grown in the past decade as funding rates had not kept up with salary costs.
Last year the Government allocated $150m to increase minimum funding rates, but there remained challenges with moving the scales up, he said.
The current changes would benefit teachers earning from around $50,000 to around $65,000, with some getting increases of as much as 17 per cent.
The Government was committed to adding the remaining four pay scales to match the kindergarten sector in this term, but today's announcement was about "catching up", Hipkins said.
Asked why it had taken so long to address, Hipkins acknowledged under the Helen Clark-led Labour government there were moves to reach pay parity, but this had halted under National.
Hipkins said he hoped the pay moves would start to address difficulties with recruitment and reduce turnover in education and care services as fewer teachers leave for higher pay elsewhere.
"In the late 2000s with talk of pay parity coming we saw a boost in teachers training, but that ground to a halt."
Hipkins said to receive the funding centres would need to prove they were paying these six steps as a minimum, and that the funding was not going to equipment instead.
It would be monitored, he said.
Asked how this funding boost could be justified in light of the wider public sector pay freeze, Hipkins said this area was exactly where the Government wanted to focus.
"This Government is committed to delivering salary increases to lower-paid workers and supporting pay parity, while carefully managing the books and paying down debt.
"The goal is to lift wages and address historic inequities in the workforce while protecting jobs."
New Zealand Education Institute union ECE representative Virginia Oakly credited their Voice campaign with raising awareness.
They'd spoken with employers across the country and they wanted to pay more, she said, but the barrier remained funding.
There was more progress to be made to reach full parity but this was a "great start", she said.
The next focus would be on centralising pay, rather than bulk funding.
"It is a great start, but we need parity for the whole sector so we know a teacher is a teacher in New Zealand, that they are all valued and paid the same for the same job.
"Today is a win for our sector but actually for our tamariki. We know looking after our sector is looking after the wellbeing of our children."
Kristy MacDonald's son Julian, 4, has attended the Newtown centre for several years, and her younger son Asher, 11 months, will start in just under a month.
She said with parents having to work harder and longer hours these centres and properly valuing the teachers were more important than ever.
"We need these centres, they are essential. It is such an important time of a child's life, and so we need great teachers to help grow and shape them."