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Day care is expensive in D.C. Some say the city should spend millions more subsidizing it.

Parents wait outside of a D.C. day care for their youngest child in December 2020. (Evelyn Hockstein/for The Washington Post)
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Child care is becoming one of the major flash points in the D.C. Council’s ongoing budget negotiations, as advocates ask the city to spend tens of millions more on subsidizing the high cost of day care for the city’s neediest parents.

In a city where day-care costs can be exorbitant and child-care workers must comply with increasing regulations while often working for low pay, some advocates believe D.C.’s local government should treat day cares a little less like private businesses and a little more like government-subsidized services.

“There’s no real business model of child care, because child care is torn between what parents can pay . . . and what it costs to provide high-quality care and education, which is very expensive,” said Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen, who leads the Under 3 DC Coalition, which calls for the city to spend more to subsidize care for infants and toddlers. “It’s a system we rely on economically and a system we rely on socially — we just have to start seeing those public investments.”

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) proposed significant funding for the sector in her draft of the fiscal year 2022 budget, which the council is in the process of reshaping. Drawing mostly on federal coronavirus relief funds, Bowser suggested programs including scholarships for child-care workers to take college courses to meet new city degree requirements and bonuses for people who work in the high-turnover field for more than a year.

The District also allocated nearly $40 million in federal funds to “stabilization grants” that most of the 480 licensed child-care providers in the District received, to help centers stay in business despite the increased costs imposed by the pandemic, which caused most to shut down at least temporarily and made operating more costly for those who reopened.

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“There’s going to be a substantial amount of money to help child-care providers, to make sure they can continue to operate, to stay in business, to pay off debt that they may have accumulated during this time,” said Sara Mead, the District’s assistant superintendent of early learning.

What Bowser’s budget leaves out: money for a law that the council passed in 2018 but never fully funded, the Birth-to-Three for All D.C. Amendment Act.

The law was meant to reshape the city’s child-care landscape by touching on a wide range of subjects, from lactation coaching to mental health care for toddlers. It has become a point of contention in each budget cycle as activists urge the city to spend the money to actually enact it.

The council is working this month on reworking Bowser’s budget proposal, and many proponents have testified at budget hearings, asking the council to fund the law. Council members who want to raise income taxes on wealthy residents as part of the budget negotiations have floated the Birth to Three Act as one of the ways they might spend tens of millions of dollars that the taxes would raise.

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The Birth to Three Act’s two most significant planks were meant to increase day-care workers’ pay and to drastically increase the number of families in the District eligible to receive vouchers to pay for child care.

The act calls for every family in the District, regardless of income, to eventually qualify for a subsidy that ensures they spend no more than 10 percent of their annual income on child care by 2027. Currently, the subsidy is restricted mostly to families who earn up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $66,000 for a family of four. The law calls for that threshold to start increasing in 2024.

Unlike the subsidies, the provisions on worker salaries are already behind schedule. The law states a goal that day-care workers will eventually earn a salary in line with the city’s public elementary school teachers with similar education and experience. To achieve that, the city would increase the dollar value of the vouchers that it pays to child-care centers for the care of poor children. About half of the city’s child-care centers accept vouchers and care for at least some children who receive the subsidies.

The law called for that funding to start in 2019 and increase annually, so that by October 2022, workers caring for infants and toddlers would be fully on par with those teaching first- through fifth-graders.

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So far, it hasn’t been funded, though Bowser has proposed spending $18.5 million in 2023 and 2024 on a program testing whether higher subsidies actually lead to higher teacher pay.

Day-care workers have asked the council to allocate $60 million to increase the subsidies in 2022.

“This is an industry that’s underfunded, underinvested. And the majority of people providing this service are Black and Brown women,” said LaDon Love, executive director of Spaces in Action, an advocacy group that organized a protest with parents and toddlers outside the Wilson Building last month. “Child care is expensive. Child care is a necessity . . . We’re really talking about the impact we’re having on the minds and bodies of very young children.”

Asked about allocating money in her proposed budget for the Birth to Three Act, Bowser said that the council could choose to fund it by amending her budget.

“I always ask myself, why didn’t the council fund the law that it passed? . . . That’s their proposal, and they’ve had two years to fund their proposal,” she said when she visited a preschool last month to tout her investments in early-childhood education.

Paul Kihn, the city’s deputy mayor for education, said in an interview that advocates of the law might find some things to like in the mayor’s budget.

“My own sense of it is that the spirit of Birth to Three is the spirit that we have embodied in our comprehensive approach overall in this mayor’s budget,” he said. “We’re very focused on improving [day-care] quality in a number of ways, some of which are included in Birth to Three, some of which aren’t. I think there are lots of areas of overlap.”

Mead, the assistant superintendent, said Bowser’s proposed two-year pilot study of higher subsidies meant to increase teacher pay is wiser than funding a subsidy increase across the board.

Unlike public school salaries, the city can’t directly set salaries for day-care workers, which are private businesses, she noted.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) agreed in an interview. “The adults who provide child care are not being paid enough. But how do we increase their pay?” he said. “This is the private sector, just like any other private-sector business. We can’t tell restaurants or Macy’s what to pay . . . I don’t think that portion of the [Birth to Three] law is well thought out.”

Mendelson said he and his staff have devoted extensive meetings to this issue, and he isn’t sure yet what he’ll recommend when he submits his own draft of the budget later this month.

Marilyn Medrano, who owns a day-care center in Northwest Washington and has gotten involved in the Under 3 DC Coalition, thinks the District should increase the subsidy it pays for the poor children in her program, because the city imposes additional requirements, such as a 2017 policy requiring day-care workers to pursue college degrees.

“The difficulty that we’re having is that we have been receiving subsidies from the government, but the reimbursement is not accurate. For example, we are preparing the teachers to go to university, but . . . we cannot pay those salaries that she would earn once she gets her degree,” Medrano said.

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The pandemic brought more requirements for cleaning and social distancing. Medrano bought box upon box of disposable gloves, even when the price tripled.

Marla Dean, who heads the Bright Beginnings day-care program for homeless children, said her program had to cut the number of hours it operates because of the District’s requirement that children stay in small cohorts to prevent the spread of the virus.

“You’re not going to find a child-care provider who is not at a subsistence level. We are all fighting to sustain,” Dean said in a conversation convened by the Under 3 advocacy group.

Medrano agreed: “I’ll be honest with you, I ran through my savings. It was very hard. At the end of the day, the day-care closed with losses.”

Her center is still open, and she has joined a cadre of child-care providers and parents who are acting as budget activists on the side.

It’s easy to tell which protests are theirs: They’re the activists outside the Wilson Building playing with their toddlers.

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