Child-care worker Debbie James-Dean cleans the face of Aaron Albritton, 16 months, while Malachi Young, 15 months, left, waits his turn at a Kids Are Us Learning Center in Southeast Washington. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) has offered a $15 million proposal to address the acute shortage of licensed child-care options for the city’s infants and toddlers, an issue that has gained urgency amid a baby boom.

Her 2018 budget includes competitive grants to help high-
quality providers expand or open centers and would also make space available for child-care facilities in three city-owned or leased buildings.

The investment would yield an estimated 1,300 additional slots for infants and toddlers — an increase of close to 20 percent.

“We wanted to respond to what we have been hearing over and over again about infant and toddler child care — that we don’t have enough of it and it’s not where we need it,” said Deputy Mayor for Education Jennifer Niles.

The investment was welcomed by advocates, who said it reflects growing, and much needed, attention to a stressed child-care system.

There is enough space in licensed child-care centers to serve only about a third of the 22,000 children younger than 3 in the District, according to a 2016 report by D.C. Appleseed and the D.C. Fiscal Policy Institute. The shortage means long wait lists and frustration for a new generation of parents.

The proposal begins to address the short supply of care, but it does not include an increase in the city’s subsidy rate. The reimbursement helps fund care for children from low-income families and serves as the city’s main revenue stream supporting child-care homes and centers. The rate covers just 66 percent of the median cost for quality infant care.

It also does not address the related issue of compensation for child-care workers, who earned an average of $26,900 in 2015, making them one of the lowest- paid groups of professionals in the District. Poverty wages for child-care workers are becoming a pressing issue in the District, because policymakers recently increased education requirements, making the city among the first in the nation to require child-care workers to obtain college degrees. Lead teachers are expected to have an associate degree by 2020.

Bridget Hall, director of Big Mama’s Children’s Center in Southwest Washington, said the plan prioritizes “quantity over quality.”

Her center, like many across the city, serves primarily children from poor families, and so the subsidy rate largely determines what she is able to pay teachers.

“We need to support quality care and education by paying our teachers what they rightfully deserve,” Hall said.

Niles said the expansion is a starting point in what she hopes will be a longer-term investment that puts the District on the map for providing a model system of care and education for infants and toddlers, following strides the city has made in offering universal preschool.

“There is certainly much more work to do in the overall improvement of our early-
childhood sector,” she said.

The mayor’s proposal would fund a pool of competitive grants worth between $250,000 and $1 million for between 20 and 50 providers, Niles said. The grants could be used for staffing and expansion of facilities or as seed money for new centers, she said.

Providers also would be able to apply for space in city government-owned facilities. The plan takes a page from the federal government; more than 100 independently-operated child-care centers — including many in the District — are located in federal buildings. Such facilities are popular with federal workers, and they often generate savings that can be spent to improve the quality of care or be passed on to families.

Niles said it’s not clear whether those facilities would be offered for a fee or at no cost to child-care providers.

Niles said the plan also would fund two government employees to streamline the regulatory process for child-care providers seeking to expand or open their doors in the District, easing a process some say is lengthy and extremely difficult to navigate.

And it includes money for scholarships for child-care workers who are aiming for a Child Development Associate certificate. The funding would likewise expand a pilot program that trains child-care workers starting in high school and supports them through higher education, Niles said.

For parents, the plan funds an expanded online portal that would provide consistent information about licensed facilities in the District and help parents find care and assess quality, she said.

The D.C. Council is also considering several bills that would improve the supply and quality of child care.

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I- At Large), chairman of the education committee, co-
introduced a facilities bill, similar to the mayor’s proposal, that would free up space in municipal buildings for child care. His plan would offer the space at no cost, and also provide utilities, equipment, furnishings and security.

Council member Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) introduced a bill asking the city to evaluate the supply and demand for child-care facilities that operate outside of standard hours, for parents who work nights and weekends.

And council member Vincent C. Gray (D- Ward 7), along with six other council members, has introduced a wide-reaching bill with the aim of locating sites for at least four new child-care centers in Wards 7 and 8. His bill also would require city officials to develop an updated subsidy rate based on the actual cost of care, and to develop a competitive compensation scale for child-care teachers.