Occupational Licensing

25 Years of Experience in Child Care? Get a Degree or Lose Your Job, Says D.C.

A new lawsuit challenges a regulation that would take jobs away from capable day care workers, drive up costs, and limit access to early childhood education.


Institute for Justice

The city government in Washington, D.C., wants to require all preschool teachers to have a college degree. The plan has already been called "madness," "outrageous," and "completely wrongheaded" by parents of the very children who would, in the city's eyes at least, benefit from the rule.

Ilumi Sanchez calls it something else: a threat to her livelihood.

Sanchez has taken care of dozens of D.C. children since 1995, so she has far more experience and training in this realm than any two-year degree could bestow. She currently watches nine children throughout the day and then takes care of her family at night. When the new regulation takes effect in 2020, Sanchez will have to either spend five figures on college tuition to pursue an unnecessary degree, or move her family and her business out of the city, which comes with plenty of costs of its own.

"I love my job because I love kids. It is hard to have a bad day doing what I do. But since the regulation passed, it has been hard to stay positive," says Sanchez.

Sanchez is one of three plaintiffs—two child care providers and a parent—now suing the city with the help of the Institute for Justice, a libertarian legal firm. The federal lawsuit argues that the Office of the State Superintendent for Education (OSSE), which oversees D.C. day cares, overstepped its authority and violated the plaintiffs' constitutional right to earn a living and to equal protection under the law.

"You don't need to know how to integrate a function or write in iambic pentameter in order to take care of a newborn or toddler," says Renée Flaherty, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. "Requiring them to spend two to four years studying subjects like English literature, math, or public speaking will only serve to drive them out of business, drive up day care costs, and make finding a day care in the District even more impossible than it already is."

The average cost of child care in D.C. is more than $22,600 annually, the highest of any metropolitan area in the country, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank. That's likely to go up if the mandate goes into effect. The required degree costs about $6,000 on average for a two-year program, according to the College Board.

As Reason has previously reported, concern about those costs and about losing trusted day care providers has inspired dozens of parents to voice their opposition to the OSSE.

"A delay is not good enough—full repeal is the only responsible course of action for District families," Kate Francis, a resident of the city's northwest quadrant, wrote to the office, noting that the policy would create an enormous barrier for low-income individuals and non–English speakers to work in child care jobs. "It sickens me that OSSE can be so cavalier and reckless with the lives of District families. Ripping kids away from the caregivers they know and love will be traumatic."

Photo provided by Institute for Justice

Even highly credentialed teachers can be swept up in this nonsensical policy. Take Dale Sorcher, who has worked for two decades at the Gan HaYeled preschool in D.C. She has master's degrees in education and social work, but those don't count for the OSSE's mandate, which requires a degree specifically in early childhood education. She has joined Sanchez in her suit.

"I hope they decide that this is really stupid and makes no sense," Sorcher told Reason in December. "In certain areas, certain positions, I think life experience is way more valuable than 24 credit hours. It's crazy."

Requiring day care workers to have a college degree doesn't mean the quality of child care in D.C. will increase. Research by Diana Thomas and Devon Gorry—economists at Creighton University and Utah State University, respectively—shows that day care regulations intended to improve quality often focus on easily observable measures, such as mandatory degrees or certifications, that are more likely to increase the cost than the quality of care.

Last year, The Washington Post published a lengthy look at the new mandate's consequences. One preschool teacher, Debbie James-Dean, talked about getting up at 4:15 a.m. each day to finish homework before working a full day and then taking classes until after 9 p.m.

The OSSE says the new policy is supposed to increase the quality of day care providers, who should have skills rivaling elementary school teachers. But the mandate's supporters haven't identified any specific deficiencies in the current child care workforce.

"Early learning begets later learning, and we're really setting up a positive trajectory," Elizabeth Groginsky, the district's assistant superintendent told The Atlantic last year.

There are reasons—such as the Department of Health and Human Services's conclusion in 2010 that early childhood education "yielded only a few statistically significant differences in outcomes at the end of the 1st grade"—to be skeptical of that prediction. But even if it's true that better educated preschool teachers would be an overall improvement for D.C. children, it doesn't necessarily follow that all undereducated teachers should be banned from working. Let everyone offer their services. Some parents will pay the premium for the college-educated daycare workers, and those parents who are unable or unwilling to do so will have another choice.

Instead, the OSSE will take that choice away from parents, take jobs away from capable educators with decades of experience, and drive up costs while limiting availability of child care services even as the city's population continues to grow.

"Families depend on me, and I depend on them," says Sanchez. "I may not have a degree, but that doesn't mean I don't know what I'm doing."