New preschool regulations spark protests from operators

Preschool providers protest outside the Wilson Building on June 5. (Mark Lieberman/The Current/June 2017)

An ongoing dispute over new preschool regulations spilled into public view last week, as protesters waved handwritten signs and blared gospel music on Freedom Plaza across from the Wilson Building.

Late last year, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education issued a series of changes, intended to conform with a 2014 federal law establishing nationwide standards for preschools, according to the agency’s Elizabeth Groginsky. Under the new regulations, all preschool program directors must have a bachelor’s degree, and every preschool employee must have an associate degree; current staff without those degrees need to secure them within a few years.

Other major changes include a higher upfront cost for a preschool license; more detailed requirements for establishing emergency procedures and contingency locations; and highly specific safety provisions, including a ban on children using cups during water play and mandatory helmet use on any wheeled equipment, including a tricycle.

Preschool operators across the city have argued since late last year that the new rules could impede their ability to maintain their programs. They want Mayor Muriel Bowser to host a town hall forum where they can air their concerns. The state superintendent’s office already held a series of contentious meetings with operators to address — or, some argue, deflect — their frustrations. A Bowser spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment on the call for further dialogue.

Groginsky has argued that the regulations streamline existing procedures and ensure student safety. In a statement, her office’s spokesperson Fred Lewis wrote that the agency is offering $3 million in scholarships and has increased subsidies for early childhood programs two years in a row, all in an effort to ease the transition to degree requirements.

“We will continue to evaluate the impact of this requirement on providers, their staff, and importantly, the families we serve,” Lewis wrote.

Preschool leaders say they’re already struggling to attract new employees given those requirements. They say that educators with degrees in hand are more likely to seek more lucrative employment, forcing operators to raise salaries and, by extension, tuition for families.

One of the demonstrators at the June 5 protest, Adriana Gomez, has operated Semillitas Early Learning Center at 2100 New Hampshire Ave. NW near the U Street corridor for the last four years. If regulations don’t change, she said, nearly all of her 12 employees may be ineligible to work there within a couple of years, and she might be forced to shutter her program. Gomez plans to continue protesting until circumstances change.

“We’ll be more than happy to come back if necessary,” she said. “Even just for the parents’ benefit.”

Back in March, these issues drew the attention of at-large D.C. Council member Robert White, who plans to introduce legislation designed to help preschool providers stay afloat amid cost concerns. White — who sought child development care for his infant daughter in the midst of his council campaign last year — sees preschool reform as fundamental to improving the city’s education system and expanding access for lower-income families. His bill will propose using government funds to reduce the cost burden on providers.

“There will be a hefty price tag,” White told The Current. “But we have to make a call as a city as to how much we value early childhood development for the sake of cutting away at the racial achievement gap and keeping families here in the District.”

Bowser appears to agree. This week, the council adopted her fiscal year 2018 budget proposal for $15 million toward expanding early childhood center availability, with the goal of adding options for more than 1,300 infants and toddlers over the next three years. Incentives will be offered to providers who partner with the city to operate in government-owned buildings, such as the University of the District of Columbia’s Van Ness campus.

The new funding includes $1 million for mechanisms to help providers navigate regulations, according to Fred Lewis, spokesperson for the state superintendent’s office. One full-time employee will be “embedded” within the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to help with permit issues, and another will connect providers to the Department of Energy & Environment and the Department of Health.

“This additional capacity, and their ability to expedite processing, will reduce the burden on centers and build systems to better coordinate government services for providers,” Lewis wrote in an email.

“To keep families in D.C., we will have to attract more quality child care,” Bowser said during her State of the District address on March 22. “Private providers tell us that the costs of meeting robust early child care regulations are high: Space and build-out expenses are challenging, and training and maintaining high-quality staff is increasingly difficult.”

As of 2015, more than 43,000 D.C. residents were under the age of 5, according to U.S. census data, and the city currently boasts more than 500 preschools, according to the state superintendent’s office.

Preschool providers protest outside the Wilson Building June 5. (Mark Lieberman/The Current/June 2017)

Veronica Hegens, a Southwest resident who operates Hegens Academy Child Care Center near Nationals Park, said at the June 5 protest that the prospect of new child care centers doesn’t excite her if current operators face collateral damage.

“I’m hoping she’ll take a look at child care centers that have been open for 40 years,” she said, holding a sign that read, “Why do you need an associate’s degree to change Pampers???”

Other new regulatory provisions are more minor but still irksome for many. Previously, preschool operators had to renew their license each year for a fee between $75 and $500, depending on the number of students. Now, licenses are renewed on a three-year basis for three times the cost, forcing operators to pay more upfront. Furthermore, centers that close mid-license don’t receive reimbursement for any part of the fee, and most inspections that accompanied the annual renewal are still required yearly under the new regulations.

Preschool heads aren’t opposed to all of the new regulations: Requirements for drug and alcohol testing and criminal background checks aren’t controversial. But some concerns remain over lower-profile regulations, such as the safety provisions that some operators say will limit their ability to provide stimulating experiences.

Little Red Playschool is located at 5013 Sherier Place NW. (Brian Kapur/The Current/March 2017)

At the March meeting with Council member White, Barbara Elsas of the Little Red Playschool in the Palisades called provisions like this one “over the top” and said she thinks they’re motivated by a “gotcha mentality.”

“If you don’t read these 180 pages word for word, you don’t even know half of what’s happening,” Elsas said. “Even if you read them, you don’t know what’s happening.”

Mildred King Chapman, a former D.C. preschool operator and Arlington resident, organized last week’s protest. She plans to continue hosting protests at Freedom Plaza — and even sleeping there with a group of child care providers — until the regulations are amended.

Hegens summed up her concerns with a reminder of the preschool directors’ core concerns.

“Infants and toddlers are just a bundle of love,” she said. “That’s the best job in the world.”

Meanwhile, future proposed changes to the preschool regulations will have to undergo a 45-day council review, thanks to a newly enacted law proposed earlier this year by at-large Council member David Grosso, who chairs the Council’s Committee on Education. The state superintendent’s office previously had authority to issue new regulations without council oversight.

This article has been corrected regarding the legislation Council member Robert White intends to introduce. It will seek to lower cost burdens on preschool providers without directly addressing the new regulations.