The smallest casualties of the financial reform battle

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Washington's battle for regulatory reform wasn't supposed to have this kind of collateral damage.

President Obama and Congress fought Wall Street for a year to push through a law to reform the country's banks. But now they're facing another fight they never expected - steps from the White House - against the toddler set and their high-octane parents.

The new law is threatening the existence of the Small Savers Child Development Center, which has operated for 24 years in the basement of the Office of Thrift Supervision at 1700 G St. NW. The bank watchdog that failed to police the country's savings and loans is being closed - and its property dissolved. That means Small Savers has to go, too.

Small Savers parents - who include White House staffers, World Bankers, lobbyists, lawyers and journalists - have quickly become a lobbying juggernaut to save the small Washington institution under G Street.

"It will be a real tragedy if the financial crisis and the whole great economic soap opera claimed this day care center, too," said Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic magazine, whose 8-year-old son spent "four very happy and rich years" at Small Savers. "It may turn out the only thing working [in the building] was the day care center."

Wieseltier said he's going to "call my various illustrious friends in the White House" to save the place. Samantha Power and Cass Sunstein, both Obama advisers, have enrolled their toddler at Small Savers, too.

The home-away-from-home for 70 children has been a haven for federal and private-sector parents since 1986, when a group of parents persuaded the thrift regulator's predecessor to donate the empty basement space.

In a city where quality, affordable child care is scarce, federal government child-care centers can be premium spots.

The federal government runs 16 child-care centers in the District and close to 100 more in 31 states, serving 8,000 children. Some agencies subsidize slots. At Small Savers, where it's $1,425 per month for infants, the tuition is higher than the government's but cheaper than many private child-care centers. The center also offers some subsidies.

Like Small Savers, with 60 percent federal parents, other government child-care centers give preference to federal employees before opening spots to parents in nonprofits and the private sector. But, as with many day care centers, long waiting lists are legendary.

It's the management, parents say, that makes Small Savers so beloved. The $1 million-a-year nonprofit is run by a parent board and enjoys free rent and utilities, which holds down tuition costs. Parents, who are required to volunteer every year, drop off kids - from the tiniest babies to 5-year-olds - starting at 7:30 a.m.

The 22 teachers, trained in the Montessori child-development method, get full benefits and vacations and they stay for years. The director, Carolyn Mackey, has lasted 17 years.

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