In DC, new child care regulations are a promising start


Kiwanna Brunson with two of the babies in her care at Hart Christian Tabernacle Child Development Center, on December, 13, 2016 in Washington, DC.
Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Washington, DC’s new child care regulations, which raise minimum education requirements for providers, put the District at the leading edge of a field typically marked by low wages and inconsistent quality. But the colleges and universities that train early childhood teachers and leaders will need to adjust for the regulations to have the impact stakeholders hope for.

The District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent adopted the new regulations last fall, and workers are beginning to comply. Roughly 300 center directors and 1,750 child care staff must meet the new requirements by December 2020. The District offers scholarships for additional education and training, but programs and providers will pay a small share of the cost. 

Changes in DC Child Care Regulations

Of all the recent changes, the most important may be the enhanced focus on early childhood content, rather than just a general degree. Research on the value of formal degrees for child care providers is largely inconclusive. But programs with coursework in the science of child development, clear links between science and pedagogy, training on providing care for diverse children and families, and well-integrated field placements are likely to be most effective at raising teaching quality and improving child outcomes, according to the National Academies of Science.

Colleges and universities that train DC’s early child care providers will need to offer courses that can raise the quality of early care and education district-wide. They will need to hire more qualified instructors and hold more classes during evenings and weekends to accommodate working child care providers who need to return to school to meet the new requirements. Education and training programs will also need to ensure that their offerings meet the linguistic and cultural needs of providers and families in the District. These changes will make the best use of public and private investments required to meet the new regulations. Without them, time and tuition funds are unlikely to yield hoped-for improvements in providers’ skills and children’s experiences.

Institutions have a major financial incentive to attract child care workers seeking to meet the new regulations, but not necessarily to adopt evidence-based upgrades. Colleges and universities eligible to receive District scholarships should be held to the highest program standards. Other institutions may benefit from oversight, as well. The Council for Professional Recognition, which offers the Child Development Associate credential, recently revamped its program to incorporate coaching and reflective teacher observations. Providers, advocates, and the Office of the State Superintendent should hold institutions accountable for delivering these and other proven strategies so new degrees reflect substance.

In the meantime, stakeholders need to watch for unintended consequences. Many District child care centers and licensed family care homes already have long waiting lists. They may not be able to afford to lose staff who do not or cannot conform to the new requirements. Instead of improving their qualifications, providers might opt to work in Maryland or Virginia, which have lower requirements, or to provide informal care as unregulated nannies or babysitters. Providers could leave early care and education entirely. These developments would limit families’ access to affordable, high-quality child care, undermining the goals of the new regulations.

Fortunately, stakeholders are monitoring these trends. In the coming years, they might consider lobbying for additional supports and incentives or pioneering new recruitment efforts. Regulatory change is a promising start. But careful implementation in partnership with education and training institutions will ensure that workers, families, and young children see the greatest benefits from District efforts.