Quality child care out of reach for too many in D.C.

This weekend I had a wonderful opportunity to meet with WAMU reporter Jessica Gould to discuss the high costs of child care in D.C, which according to a recent report are nearly twice the cost of annual tuition at a four-year college. The short piece, which aired on today's "Morning Edition," doesn’t cover our entire hour-long conversation, but does emphasize one fundamental message:  Quality child care is out of reach for the majority of families in D.C.  Whether you are a parent in Ward 3 or Ward 8, finding quality child care so that you can go back to work is no easy task.  

Read the story's transcript here (scroll down).

For the mother who was highlighted in the piece, the salary she earned as a special education teacher in the District before her son was born wasn’t enough to pay for the child care she needed to go back to work. For this parent, there are a few policies that could help offset the steep costs of child care. One example that I mentioned are tax breaks, but more generous and flexible family leave policies are another way to support working families.

For a low-income family in Ward 8, the problem isn’t cost so much as access. The District’s subsidy program should bring the cost of quality child care within reach, but the problem is finding an available slot. Ward 8 faces the most acute shortage of quality child care in the city, with only enough slots to serve 36.5% of infants and toddlers who live there. (Check the map on our homepage to see child care availability by ward.) Gould plans a follow-up story focusing on the issue from the perspective of a Ward 8 parent, and we will revisit this issue on our blog.  

But getting back to the point of the cost of child care, How could it cost more than college? 

What the WAMU piece didn’t convey is that as we move towards a more robust child care industry with a dual emphasis of supporting early childhood development and early education, we need to ensure programs are equipped to fulfill both missions—and that takes significant investment. Just as college professors are compensated for their high degree of educational attainment and for teaching students, child care professionals must also receive specialized training and continuing education and must also be proportionally compensated for caring for infants and toddlers. Centers need to be able to provide competitive compensation to retain qualified staff and give them the ongoing professional development the field demands.

When my daughter was six months old I confronted the same decision about going back to work and the choosing a child care for her.  Ultimately, I decided to stay home to care for her.  By the time I had my second child, I was faced with spending upwards of 65% of my income after taxes for quality child care for my 18 month-old and newborn infant. Again, I decided to stay home. Even having worked in the early care and education field for most of my career until that point, I hadn’t fully realized how daunting and limited the choices are for working parents of young children.

As a parent, there is no limit to what I would pay to ensure my children are cared for in a nurturing, safe, warm environment where they are given the chance to learn and grow. All children, whether in Ward 3 or Ward 8, deserve the same high-quality care. You just can’t put a price tag on it and declare it out of reach for some. We need to find a way to make it accessible for all of D.C.’s youngest citizens.