Lawyers for the District argued Wednesday for the dismissal of a lawsuit that challenges city regulations requiring some child-care workers to obtain associate degrees or risk losing their jobs.
Two day-care workers and a parent are suing the city over the controversial rules that supporters contend will make D.C. a national model for providing high-quality care for the youngest children.
The lawsuit, filed on April 26 in U.S. District Court by the Virginia-based libertarian law firm Institute for Justice, argues that the regulations enacted in December 2016 deprive the child-care workers of the “right to pursue an honest living free from arbitrary and irrational regulations.” They also deprive the parent of her right to “make responsible decisions about who to trust” to care for her child without “due process of law” guaranteed under the Constitution, the suit states.
By requiring lead teachers in child-care centers to obtain college degrees but not demanding that other child-care workers do so, the regulations violate plaintiffs’ right to equal protection under the law, the lawsuit argues.
“This policy is extremely burdensome for hundreds of people and the benefits that are going to come from it are speculative at best,” Renée D. Flaherty, a lawyer at the Institute for Justice, said in an interview. “The government can’t impose real burdens on real people in pursuit of imaginary benefits.”
The suit also says the D.C. Council bypassed constitutional checks on its power by delegating implementation of the requirements to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) and allowing the agency to act “without sufficient oversight” by the legislative branch or the courts.
The three plaintiffs, Altagracia Sanchez of Northeast Washington, Jill Homan of Northwest, and Dale Sorcher of Bethesda, Md., are seeking nominal damages of $3 as well as a permanent injunction preventing D.C. from enforcing all of the requirements, which also stipulate that child-care center directors must earn bachelor’s degrees and assistant teachers and home-care providers must earn Child Development Associate (CDA) certificates.
In a response filed in court Wednesday, lawyers for the District argued that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the plaintiffs lack standing to sue given they have not proved that the regulations caused them “actual or imminent” harm. The lawyers also wrote that the plaintiffs’ allegations lack merit and that OSSE had “regulatory authority to enact” the requirements.
The education requirement is in the city’s interest because it helps ensure “the optimal educational growth of young children,” the lawyers wrote. An OSSE spokesman declined to comment on pending litigation.
The outcome of the lawsuit could have repercussions for the national push to improve the care and education of children. D.C. increased its educational requirements as part of a larger revision to child-care regulations meant to position the city at the forefront of that movement.
Proponents say the requirements will help close the academic achievement gap between children from poor and middle-class families that research demonstrates manifests by the age of 18 months. The regulations are also meant to educate child-care workers long treated and paid like babysitters and to ensure that all of D.C.’s infants and toddlers get the academic start they need.
“I think every child deserves a teacher who has the skills and education that will help them in their development, and I believe the associate degree is the pathway to teachers getting those skills and knowledge,” said Sue Russell, the executive director of the Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (TEACH) Early Childhood National Center.
A Harvard Law School professor who studies constitutional law said the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the city have just a slim chance of success.
“You wouldn’t give it an F on the exam, you’d say, ‘Okay, creative argument — hard one to win, but creative argument,’ ” Noah Feldman said, referring to the suit.
Early-education advocates who hoped D.C. could set an example by transforming its child-care workforce say the lawsuit has set off alarm bells.
“We are watching the situation in D.C. closely,” said Rhian Allvin, the CEO of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The education requirements have proved contentious. After local child-care providers raised concerns that the regulations would force child-care centers out of business and low-income individuals out of jobs, the city announced plans to extend the deadline for day-care workers to comply with the policy.
As of late 2017, the District estimated that roughly 1,000 lead teachers lacked associate degrees while another 1,000 assistant teachers and home caregivers lacked CDAs.
The three plaintiffs argue that the regulations are unnecessary and unrealistic. Sanchez and Sorcher, who work as day-care providers, assert in the lawsuit that they lack time to go to school to complete the required degrees.
Sanchez, 55, runs a home day care — Mundo de Fantasias — for nine children with the help of her husband, who serves as chef and doorman. The day care stays open every weekday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., meaning she would have to take night classes to earn an associate degree. Dale Sorcher, 61, holds down two jobs, caring for toddlers at a Jewish preschool in Northwest and working as a clinical therapist in the afternoons.
“Plaintiff Sanchez does not need an associate’s degree to care for children at her day care lovingly and competently, which she has done for the past 11 years,” the suit states. Sorcher, who has worked at the preschool for eight years, also “does not need more education,” the lawsuit states.
Homan, the third plaintiff, said in an interview that she joined the lawsuit because she is concerned the teachers at her daughter’s day care will lose their jobs under the new regulations. Homan’s daughter, Alexandra, is 18 months old and attends a day-care center in Northeast. One of Alexandra’s favorite teachers at the center lacks an associate degree.
“It’s not important to me whether she has a college degree or not — every day we talk about Alexandra and she’s giving me some hints and some help about how to ensure that Alexandra is continuing to grow developmentally,” Homan said. “You can’t regulate patience and love.”
The plaintiffs must respond to the city’s Wednesday filings by July 5. After that, District lawyers will issue a reply brief and the court will decide whether to schedule an oral argument, which would probably take place in early fall, according to Flaherty.
She said that the Institute for Justice is determined to keep fighting and that the city’s motion to dismiss is “nothing that we didn’t expect.”
Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story misstated the date the lawsuit was filed against the city. This version has been corrected.