Arlington County Board members say they will reject a proposal to eliminate the county’s 40-year-old child-care quality and safety standards after receiving “tons and tons” of e-mails, letters and phone calls and a petition with more than 1,000 names from concerned residents, parents and child-care providers.
“People have been weighing in. Clearly, the standards we have are excellent. And we have been reminded more about that,” board Chairman J. Walter Tejada (D) said. “We like to pride ourselves that we’re a world-class community. Well, this is the kind of value that residents expect, and we have to comply.”
Tejada announced that a majority of the board supported keeping the standards high at a work session on the county’s fiscal 2014 budget Tuesday evening. The board will formally vote on the proposal this month.
Tejada said he and other board members were swayed by people’s input and after talking to child-care experts about how crucial early learning is for future success.
“Part of our philosophy is that we are a caring and inclusive community. And what could be more important than caring for our kids?” said Tejada, who has been talking privately over the past few days with board members to shore up support for the county standards. “We have a very diverse community. We need to ensure that kids from all backgrounds have access to the highest quality child care and that the people who care for them have the best training.”
The move to overturn two 40-year-old child-care ordinances and revert to lower Virginia standards to regulate child care was first proposed by County Manager Barbara Donellan as part of an effort to close a projected budget shortfall. The proposal would have eliminated the three-person Office of Child Care Licensing, which has lost two other positions in recent years, and saved the county about $250,000.
Reverting to state standards would have meant that as many as 1,000 children would no longer be in regulated child-care settings and that standards would be lower for everyone else.
“What really swayed many of us was learning how Virginia stacked up with the rest of the nation,” said board member Mary H. Hynes (D), who has worked in education and child care. “I had known Virginia was near the bottom, but it’s pretty amazing how poor it is. As we began talking about removing our licensure, it became clear that this was not a cut that any of us felt comfortable making.”
Child Care Aware of America, a nonpartisan advocacy group, has ranked Virginia among the lowest in the country for having weak child-care safety and quality standards, giving the state’s child-care centers a D and its family homes an F.
“This is great news for the children of Arlington County, but it should be a wake-up call to policymakers and state legislators,” said Grace Reef, policy director of Child Care Aware of America, who at a recent public hearing explained how Arlington’s standards differed from the state’s. “Children throughout the state should be safe in child care, and we know from our licensing studies that they’re not.”
Tejada called the state standards “dismal.”
Virginia licenses only larger family day homes with six or more unrelated children. The state does not count a provider’s own and related children in that total. Smaller homes, with five or fewer unrelated children, are not regulated. The state also has lower teacher- and director-education and training requirements. It exempts from most regulations child-care programs run by religious institutions, schools and other organizations. The state standards also have higher ratios of teachers to students.
The three workers in the Arlington licensing office are responsible for inspecting and monitoring the family day homes and child-care centers, which care for about 5,200 children in the county. They run background checks on providers, make planned and unannounced inspections, and provide free training on safety and child development.
In the past decade, they have been responsible for closing two child-care centers and seven family day homes for child neglect, for having too many children, safety problems and other violations. In the past two weeks alone, the three workers have made eight announced inspections and three unannounced visits and investigated one complaint.
They found a variety of infractions, including staff who needed to complete criminal history checks or have TB immunizations, potentially dangerous broken swings and children younger than 2 sleeping in carriers and bouncing seats rather than in separate cribs, as regulations and safe sleeping practices require.
Sandra Redmore, director of the Clarendon Child Care Center, who organized the petition drive, said Arlington’s standards allow one child-care worker to care for five children younger than 2. Virginia allows one worker to care for eight.
“Imagine eight children in diapers and one caregiver. A child’s basic needs aren’t even being met under the state standards,” Redmore said. “So much is happening for a child between the ages of 0 and 5. And I’m thrilled that the county board recognized how important it is to support the growth and development of young children.”
Marie Mosby, who runs a family child-care center and has been involved in fighting the cut, said the county board’s turnabout “is a wise move.
“We have a good system,” Mosby said. “The people who monitor us help us provide better care.”