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Federal judge dismisses lawsuit over D.C. rule requiring child-care workers to get college degrees

Child-care worker Debbie James-Dean cleans the face of Aaron Albritton while Malachi Young waits his turn at a Kids Are Us Learning Center in Southeast Washington in March 2017. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

A federal judge on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit intended to block controversial D.C. regulations requiring many of the city’s child-care workers to earn associate degrees.

The lawsuit, brought by two child-care providers and one parent in the District, argued that the rules issued in 2016 were overly burdensome and violated the constitutional rights of child-care workers.

But U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled that the arguments no longer applied because the Office of State Superintendent of Education has since amended the regulations to expand waivers for child-care workers and extend the deadline by which the education requirements must be met.

Contreras dismissed the case without prejudice, meaning it can be reopened, postponing a final review until the child-care workers have an opportunity to apply for waivers. The judge also invited the plaintiffs to file an amended complaint to show that they would continue to suffer injuries despite the extended deadline and expanded protections.

Renée Flaherty, an attorney with the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which brought the lawsuit against the District, said in an interview that the case is “definitely not over.” She hopes to file an amended complaint in the coming weeks, she said.

“Even extending the deadlines and offering the waivers,” Flaherty said, “it’s still a huge imposition and something that our clients and hundreds of providers across the city won’t be able to comply with.”

A spokesman for the D.C. attorney general declined to comment on the ruling.

The child-care education requirements, issued in December 2016, were hailed by District officials as a crucial step that would make the city a national leader in improving the quality of care for children. But the rules were met with dismay and alarm by many child-care workers who felt the expectations were unrealistic and overly expensive, particularly for a profession that often pays minimum wage. Critics worried the rules would cause child-care providers to hike prices or lose their jobs altogether.

The regulations set an associate degree as the minimum credential for a lead teacher in a child-care center. They also required child-care center directors to earn bachelor’s degrees and assistant teachers and home-care providers to earn child development associate certificates.

The Institute for Justice filed the lawsuit in April, arguing in part that OSSE exceeded its authority and violated the plaintiffs’ Fifth Amendment due-process rights to “pursue an honest living free from arbitrary and irrational regulations.”

The lead plaintiff, Altagracia Yluminada Sanchez, has run a licensed day care since 2006 out of her Northeast Washington home, where she cares for nine children. While Sanchez earned a law degree at a university in her native Dominican Republic, her credentials do not meet the D.C. rules, which require Sanchez to have an associate degree from an institution “accredited by an agency recognized by the U.S. Secretary of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, with a major in early childhood education, early childhood development, child and family studies or a closely related field.”

The deadline to meet the rules was initially December 2019 for expanded home day-care caregivers and 2020 for day-care center teachers. But in June, after the plaintiffs filed their complaint, D.C. officials amended the regulations to extend both of the deadlines to December 2023. They also extended an “experience” waiver to home caregivers like Sanchez, requiring 10 years of continuous experience.

Child-care workers can also apply for a “hardship” waiver, as long as they can demonstrate, among other things, that they will suffer an economic hardship “sufficiently great to make immediate compliance impractical despite diligent efforts.”

Because Sanchez has the requisite 10 years of experience, Contreras argued that she would be a good candidate for the experience waiver.

Contreras wrote that while the amendments from June do not definitively relieve Sanchez of her obligation to comply with the requirements, “they come awfully close: if she is ultimately granted a waiver, she will no longer be suffering any injury whatsoever due to the OSSE regulations."

Contreras also wrote that one of the plaintiffs, a parent named Jill Homan, lacked standing with her arguments that the requirements would cause her child’s caregivers to lose their jobs or raise prices. Her concerns, Contreras wrote, were “merely hypothetical” and dependent on how the child-care providers would respond to the regulations.

The judge did, however, leave the door open for Sanchez and the other child-care worker plaintiff, Dale Sorcher, to file an amended complaint to take into account the waivers and extended deadline.

Flaherty, the plaintiff’s lawyer, said the waivers would still require a child-care provider like Sanchez to begin taking steps now to attend college classes.

The college requirements would be overly expensive, “if not impossible,” for Sanchez, who primarily speaks Spanish and would struggle to read and write in English at a college level, Flaherty said.

Moreover, the 57-year-old doesn’t have the energy to pursue college classes while juggling her demanding job, she said in an interview Tuesday night.

“I’m no longer 20 years old, I’m over 50. I’m tired; I don’t want to finish a 12-hour day to go running to a university,” Sanchez said. “There’s not enough money to pay for your house, for the utilities, and on top of that to pay for your studies.”

After upward of 30 years of experience taking care of children, Sanchez said, she is more than qualified to continue in her profession without going back to school.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Sanchez said.