Staff Editorial: Burdensome preschool regulations merit further review

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

In the District, some 500 preschools attempt to serve our estimated population of 43,000 children under the age of 5. These facilities play a number of important roles. They help prepare children for kindergarten and beyond, teaching them how to get along in a group in addition to the most preliminary academic instruction. They’re also an essential lifeline for many parents who need care for their children while they’re at work.

Accordingly, setting standards for preschools is a delicate balance. Not unreasonably, when it recently revamped its regulations, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education decided that preschool employees should have at least a basic college education. But we’re concerned about the possible side effects of a blanket approach.

Preschool operators have been protesting outside the Wilson Building, arguing that the degree requirements — a bachelor’s for program directors and an associate for all other staff — as well as some of the other new rules are inappropriately onerous. “Why do you need an associate’s degree to change Pampers???” read the protest sign from a Ward 6 preschool operator. In Ward 1, an operator said she’d likely have to shut down and dismiss her 12 employees because few of them have degrees and it’s difficult to find qualified workers at wages she can afford.

We do see the benefit to having skilled personnel working with children. We hate to see achievement gaps start out in infancy because only some residents can afford quality preschools. However, workers with college degrees will justifiably expect higher wages than preschool operators are accustomed to offering. If the programs are even able to find qualified staff, parents will feel the pinch as their costs rise.

We’re not quite sure what the best solution is. Perhaps requiring a minimum number of staff with a degree would be a more practical approach, or mandating a single course specific to preschool education. We’d also encourage regulations to take the age of children into account — there isn’t the same need for educational standards for 1-year-olds as for 4-year-olds. And while the city is providing assistance to help preschool staff obtain the necessary degrees, we’d also urge funding to help parents pay for a more premium service if the new rules are enforced.

Meanwhile, operators themselves are highly qualified to weigh in on the regulations. They can describe the tasks they perform and why they don’t feel a degree is necessary for this work. They can also highlight regulations that seem illogical — such as a ban on using cups during water play or a requirement to wear a helmet while riding a tricycle. Preschool staff should be free to exercise some degree of judgment regarding their students’ safety, and we’d rather them focus on the kids — not focus their attention on compliance with a laundry list of city regulations.

The preschool operators have requested a meeting with Mayor Muriel Bowser to air their concerns. We’d encourage the mayor to take them up on that request. We’d also suggest a follow-up town hall in the fall so that parents and teachers can participate in a conversation about not only regulatory requirements but also how to improve access to early childhood education throughout the city.