Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington.

Toddlers don’t come to Ilumi Sanchez with questions about world geography or algebra. They mostly want hugs, snacks and playtime in a nurturing environment. For more than a decade, Sanchez has exceeded expectations at her home-based day-care center in the District.

Parents don’t mind that Sanchez, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, lacks a degree in early childhood development. They trust her.

That should be enough. But in 2016, the District’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) decided to meddle, passing regulations that force people such as Sanchez to complete specialized schooling or lose their jobs.

Sanchez already earned a law degree in the Dominican Republic and a Child Development Associate credential in the United States, but the D.C. education office wants more. Even U.S. graduates with advanced degrees in other fields don’t meet the new standards.

An MBA can run a national day-care chain, a medical doctor can run a children’s clinic, and a person with any four-year degree can work as a substitute schoolteacher. But none of these people can be a D.C. day-care worker without an associate degree in early-childhood education or a closely related field.

Spanish speakers such as Sanchez face additional challenges. Her English is sufficient to communicate with parents and run a business, but passing college-level composition and public speaking courses in a second language would be a stretch.

“If I need to close my day care, I’m not going to have money to pay my rent,” Sanchez says. “I’m going to lose my house.” Rather than give up her business, Sanchez partnered with the nonprofit Institute for Justice, where I work, and fought back in federal court.

Regulators responded to the lawsuit by amending the education requirement with vaguely defined waivers and delaying full implementation until 2023. The intended effect was to undercut the lawsuit so that it could be dismissed on technicalities rather than merits.

The ploy worked at the trial court level, where a judge determined that Sanchez and two other plaintiffs could not sue because they had not yet suffered damages. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected the legal maneuverings on May 29, calling them “unconvincing.”

In a decision filed by Judge Merrick Garland, the panel notes that waivers would be discretionary, time-limited and revocable at any time. “That is cold comfort indeed,” Garland writes in the opinion.

Sanchez would remain vulnerable for the rest of her career if forced to rely on the generosity of regulators with veto power over each three-year renewal application. If the rules stand, her only safe course would be to enroll in college.

Preparation for such a major life disruption would start now, not in 2023. Recognizing the urgency, the appeals court sent the case back to the lower court with an order to consider the underlying question: Do the rules make sense?

“Sanchez alleges that the regulations’ education requirements are irrational,” Garland explains. “The fact that OSSE may — in its discretion — waive those requirements from time to time (either for experience or for hardship) will not affect resolution of those allegations.”

Sanchez works with toddlers, so she knows about irrational demands. She deserves something better from the adults in government. So do working parents who struggle to find affordable day care in one of the nation’s most expensive markets. Options will be even more limited with summer camps closed during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

“The college requirement is making everything worse, without any benefit to be gained from it,” says Jill Homan, a parent and plaintiff in the lawsuit. “The most important qualities in my children’s caregivers are love and patience, which aren’t learned in school.”

Goldfish crackers also help. So does story time. Understanding transitive verbs and the quadratic formula, not so much.

People have a right to work in their chosen professions without unnecessary or excessive government interference. Few decisions are more personal than career planning, which sometimes includes college and sometimes not.

Consumers and parents also have rights. Ultimately, the decision about who watches their children is between them and the person they hire. Government regulators should not intervene without a compelling public interest, which the D.C. day-care police lack.

Children need close supervision. Their parents can take care of themselves.

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