After a nearly six-year legal battle, the deadlines for compliance with Washington, D.C.'s controversial licensing regulations for preschool teachers are nearing.
By this December, all early childhood education center directors must have a bachelor's degree with at least 15 credits of early childhood education classes. By December 2023, all preschool teachers and many at-home day care providers must have obtained at least an associate degree with a minimum of 24 credits of early childhood education classes. Even assistant teachers must obtain a Child Development Associate credential or an associate degree (in any field) by December 2023.
A 2019 study published by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis found that "the welfare costs of licensing"—the premium received by workers who meet licensing criteria—"appear to exceed the benefits." Study authors Morris M. Kleiner of the University of Minnesota and Evan J. Soltas of MIT found that "shifting an occupation in a state from entirely unlicensed to entirely licensed increases state average wages in the licensed occupation by 15 percent, increases hours per worker by 3 percent, and reduces employment by 29 percent."
Imposing occupational licensing on a field that previously did not require it pushes some people up the income ladder while pushing others out of the industry altogether. Workers who already meet licensing criteria when the rules go into effect seem to make more money, as do workers who can quickly satisfy the criteria. Workers who cannot afford the new educational requirements—for lack of time, money, or English-language proficiency—must find other work. This reduces the number of day care workers. The number of children who need care, meanwhile, will not ebb simply because there are fewer teachers. And government-mandated teacher-to-child ratios prevent fewer day care workers from taking care of the same number of children.
In essence, unless every current provider can comply with the new licensing requirements or be quickly replaced by credentialed workers, the same number of children competing for fewer spots will drive up costs to families who need care.
"D.C.'s college requirement for day care staff is not just bad policy; it is also unconstitutional. The college requirement violates daycare providers' right to earn a living without unreasonable government interference," wrote the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, about its lawsuit challenging the regulations. "D.C. is imposing real burdens on day care staff and parents."
Supporters of the regulations have chosen to focus on the purported benefits of highly-credentialed preschool teachers, seemingly dismissing concerns over costs—both to parents, and to current teachers who don't meet the requirements.
Kathy Hollowell-Makle, executive director of the District of Columbia Association for the Education of Young Children (DCAEYC), wrote recently for The Washington Post that "studies consistently show that young children receiving high-quality early education develop expansive vocabulary, possess stronger language skills, and score better in math and science school-readiness assessments."
"This science is why every child—not only those whose parents can afford it—should have equitable access to a knowledgeable, competent, nurturing, fairly compensated early educator," she argued.
But even if Hollowell-Makle is correct that better-credentialed preschool teachers lead to higher educational attainment for toddlers and young children, she barely acknowledges the tradeoffs. "Delivering on quality has costs—but the benefits are public, and the investments must be, too," she writes.
"Day care providers like Ilumi worry about the time and money needed to obtain a college education while working full time," wrote the Institute for Justice, profiling one such worker who will be hurt by the new credentialing requirements. "Many are older women who have years of experience caring for children but no experience writing a term paper on Moby Dick. Younger people may have their own families to take care of."
As these new regulations go into effect, experienced and skilled day care workers—especially those who need to work to live—will be forced out of the market and away from the families who rely on them for child care, and parents will pay more for fewer options.