How Universal Pre-k Broke Subsidized Child Care in D.C.

cribsChild-care costs for infants and toddlers (ages 0-2) in DC are among the highest in the nation — over $23,000 for center-based care for infants. For families for whom that would be almost half their annual income, subsidized child care is increasingly hard to get, and pre-k might be partly to blame. I am a huge fan of D.C.’s investments in high-quality pre-k for three and four year olds, but market impacts of booming pre-k enrollment have made it tougher for child-care providers to accept infants and toddlers at subsidized rates, even in neighborhoods with few high-income families.

Here’s what happened, from a cost-modeling study from the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE):*

  • Caring for infants and toddlers is more expensive than caring for three- and four-year-olds. More staff are needed, and more regulations have to be followed in order to meet licensing requirements and qualify as a subsidized child care provider.
  • Child-care subsidies are higher for infants and toddlers, but they’re not nearly enough to cover the full cost of operating a high-quality program. So providers need additional sources of revenue to break even.
  • Serving more three- and four-year-olds is one way to narrow the cost gap while continuing to serve infants and toddlers at subsidized rates. Even with mixed ages, it is still much easier to break even by serving families paying market rates.

What the cost-modeling study doesn’t explicitly say is that school-based pre-k makes the mixed-ages strategy less viable. With 76% of three- and four-year-olds in school-based pre-k, the market for child care in those age groups is now very small. In neighborhoods with higher-income families, child-care providers can stop accepting subsidies, charge (insanely high) market rates, and still have long wait lists. At the same time, in neighborhoods where no one can pay $23,000 for child care, meeting high-quality standards for infants and toddlers with subsidies alone is nearly impossible. As a result, providers are more likely to cut quality in order to cut costs, shut down, or operate illegally. According to information currently available, 88 licensed child-care providers in the whole city accept subsidies and offer full-time infant and toddler care, and only about a third of those earned a “gold” quality rating. If a family needs things like flexible drop-off times or services for disabilities, the options are even scarcer.

Pre-k access and child-care costs are both getting more attention on a local and national scale. But, few media stories point out how intertwined pre-k and child care are in the early care and education market, and how changes to one will impact the other. As more cities look to expand pre-k, access to child care for younger children shouldn’t accidentally take a hit when pre-k thrives, and infant and toddler subsidies should match the cost of high-quality care.

*Disclosure: I am a former OSSE employee, but had no involvement in this study or child-care and pre-k policies while I was there.

Correction: The cost of an infant in a child care center in D.C. is approximately $23,000. The $40,000 number originally stated is the estimated cost for an infant and a four year old combined. Source.