Child Care

A New Law Is Making It Even Harder To Find Day Care in D.C.

D.C.'s new degree requirements could lead to job losses, increased operating costs, and higher tuition.


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Average toddler day care costs in Washington, D.C., exceed $24,000 a year, outstripping expenses in cities like New York and San Francisco. Despite the steep prices, parents such as Megan McCune and Tom Shonosky, who live in a suburban D.C. neighborhood with their children John and Lizzy, believe day care is still worth it.

"They're doing these amazing activities with kids. John's last teacher was planning just all these really stimulating, exciting experiences," McCune says. "That's just not something that we can feasibly do and also have full-time jobs."

But day care might soon become a luxury the couple can no longer afford. In 2016, a regulation was passed mandating that day care workers obtain a college degree. The city's logic is straightforward: If D.C.'s day care staff had college degrees, they could do a better job helping disadvantaged kids climb out of poverty. 

"The developmental opportunities and those early opportunities that they have really set the foundation for their potential success long term," explained local education official Elizabeth Groginsky, a proponent of the regulation. After a delay, the rule was finally implemented in December 2023. 

Yet contrary to its intended benefits, this regulation could lead to job losses among day care workers, increased operating costs for day cares, and higher tuition for parents. 

Ami Bawa, lead teacher and assistant director at a nursery school in northwest D.C., exemplifies the unintended consequences of the regulation. Although she has been working in the field for over 20 years, Bawa may now be forced out of her job. "Even though I have a lot of experiential learning, I don't meet what is now the current standard," she explains.

As a veteran teacher, Bawa is technically eligible to apply for a waiver to continue working, but she's been waiting for five months for a response from the city. "All of these roadblocks make it harder. We're going to lose a lot of really good teachers," Bawa says. 

Proponents argue that the regulation will earn teachers more respect and higher salaries. But Bawa disagrees: "A profession like teaching specifically has to be one where you really care for and love what you're doing. What your education credential is doesn't equate to loving and being committed to the field."

The regulation "makes us feel like we're interchangeable, like anybody could do this job, when that really is not the case." 

In addition, the college requirement complicates the process for day cares to find qualified staff. McCune explains, "It's going to be the smaller day cares, the more affordable day cares that are going to suffer because they're not going to be able to attract talent or retain it, and they're not going to be able to put their prices to the level that they need to be to cover that talent, because people like us aren't going to be able to pay it." 

In 2018, the libertarian-leaning public-interest law firm the Institute for Justice sued the D.C. government to overturn the education requirements, claiming it interferes with the right to earn a living. But the courts ruled in favor of the city on the grounds that the requirement was reasonable. 

Yet the effectiveness of college requirements remains a subject of debate. As Robert Pianta, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Virginia, points out, "The evidence for a two-year degree or a four-year degree is not strong." 

There are over 3,000 early childhood degree programs across the United States, and they vary significantly in terms of what they teach and focus on. "With all that variation under there, it's no surprise to anyone that the degree itself doesn't matter," Pianta says. 

Many day care teachers eager to retain their jobs have enrolled part-time at institutions such as Trinity Washington University, a small college in the district. To earn the degree required to be an assistant teacher at a D.C. day care, students at Trinity can take classes like American history and music appreciation but aren't required to take courses in early education.  

Councilmember Christina Henderson supports the idea that day care workers study subjects unrelated to early education, emphasizing the importance of "critical thinking and learning." In contrast, McCune remarks, "Let's just back up a little and remember that these are babies….I think the needs of children at that stage, they're pretty primal." 

Nicole Page, a local preschool director, believes that "it does not only take education, it takes experience" to work at a day care. "That's what we will lose if we are not able to retain our staff, is the wealth of knowledge that they have by hands-on experience."

Her preschool is at risk of losing valuable staff, with at least 11 teachers failing to meet the new qualifications. One teacher even has a Ph.D. in family and children studies and is an adjunct professor teaching a policy and advocacy course for early childhood education at a local university, but she's no longer qualified to teach at a day care because her degree isn't in early childhood education. 

"If we are not able to retain the staff that we have, we may end up having to close some of our classrooms," Page explains.

This regulation, intended to improve child care quality, may instead harm those it aims to assist. "I just think in D.C., there's a lot of bureaucracy," says Shonosky. "This is just another case where bureaucracy is going to make our lives worse."


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