D.C.'s New Child Care Law Will Hit The Best Providers The Hardest

When parents interview a child care provider, what is the first question they ask? Is it what university that person attended? Is it whether she has a degree in child care studies? Or is it instead how much experience the person has with children? Any parent will tell you that, when it comes to child care, experience trumps diplomas every time.

Yet Washington, D.C., recently added a requirement that could prevent many of the city’s most experienced day care providers from continuing to work. Starting as soon as 2019, every lead teacher in a day care center, and most home day care providers, must have at least an associate’s degree.

For people like Ilumi Sanchez, a D.C. home day care provider who has taken care of dozens of children since 1995, the regulation will be devastating. Between the time Sanchez spends watching nine kids during the day and taking care of her family in the evening, earning an unnecessary college diploma is impossible. Her limited English skills and the five-figure cost of tuition would only compound the problem.

“You can’t learn to comfort a crying child from a college textbook,” said Sanchez. “I’ve spent 25 years learning by doing. And once the regulation goes into effect, my only choices will be to shut down, move or hire someone with degree to run my own business.” Sanchez is one of three plaintiffs who, with the help of my law firm, are suing the city over the new rule.

You can’t learn to comfort a crying child from a college textbook. Ilumi Sanchez

The new regulations were put in place with good intentions; everyone agrees that we should aspire to have high-quality day care providers. But D.C. regulations already require day care providers like Sanchez to have a Child Development Associate credential and to amass hours of professional development and training. The new regulations have simply moved the goalposts in pursuit of unproven, theoretical benefits that do not take into account the economic tradeoffs of ratcheting up required credentials.

The change was inspired by a 2015 National Academies Press report that recommended a minimum of a bachelor’s degree for all lead educators at child care centers that cater to children 8 years old and under. But that same report found no conclusive evidence that a college degree would benefit children’s development.

Moreover, the report explicitly stated that its recommendation was made without taking into account the devastating impact a college requirement would have on the child care workforce ― and on the cost of child care. All things being equal, the report said, maybe college degrees would lead to better outcomes for kids.

But all things are not equal, and “maybe” is not good enough.

Day care providers in D.C. and across the nation earn wages comparable to those of a fast-food worker. Half of America’s child care workers need food stamps, welfare payments or Medicaid. Some providers go into personal debt to finance their day care centers. The vast majority of day care workers are women, and many in D.C. are immigrants who work in the city’s many popular Spanish-immersion day care centers.

How can these already busy, exhausted caregivers be expected to pay for college, not to mention for someone to care for their own children while they attend night school? Because of D.C.’s new regulations, women who live across the city from local colleges have been forced to wake up at 4:15 a.m. to study before a full day’s work; then, they must take public transportation to work and to classes that last until 9:15 p.m. Their only alternative is to take expensive online classes out of their own pocket.

When I asked a D.C. official why a Child Development Associate credential is not enough to qualify day care providers to do their job, they replied that an associate’s degree requires “more hours.” But the additional hours, absent any specific training, are not an inherent good. To hundreds of day care providers, there are not enough hours in the day to go to college, work full time and take care of their own families.

To hundreds of day care providers, there are not enough hours in the day to go to college, work full time and take care of their own families.

Vermont and Pennsylvania already have similar credential requirements, and other cities and states may soon follow D.C.’s lead. Indeed, D.C.’s ill-conceived experiment is part of a troubling national trend of education credential inflation. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs in the United States will require a college degree, even though higher education is simply not necessary for many jobs. The generalist requirements of most degrees do little to train future employees. This is certainly the case in child care, where the most effective training comes on the job and experience is the best teacher. “I don’t have a degree,” Sanchez said, “but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m doing. Unfortunately, the city seems to think that experience is worth nothing.”

Imposing real burdens in pursuit of imaginary benefits is not just bad policy—it is unconstitutional. The government cannot impose burdens on Americans’ right to earn an honest living without good reason. “Anyone who has worked with kids knows how rewarding it is to see them grow up,” said Sanchez. “That’s why I love my job. But now, with the threat of being shut down looming over me, it is hard to keep a smile on my face.”

Renée Flaherty is an attorney with the Institute for Justice.