Already a leader in offering universal preschool for three and four-year olds, Washington D.C. now aims to position itself again at the forefront of early childhood investments. In June, the city council unanimously approved the Birth-to-Three For All D.C Act, a big ticket bill which Mayor Muriel Bowser then signed into law in September.
The legislation calls for increased investments in health services provided to infants and toddlers, particularly those living in Wards 7 and 8, and expands the city’s home-visiting program, a support for pregnant women and new parents. The legislation also boosts subsidies for early childhood learning, both to expand access and to increase the wages of low-paid workers. While the most generous supports are still targeted at the poorest families, the bill caps out-of-pocket childcare expenses for even the most affluent, with no household paying more than 10 percent of their income.
This all comes at a steep price: an estimated $500 million over the next decade. So far, just $1.3 million has been earmarked for the Birth-to-Three Act in the 2019 budget, financed by a tobacco tax increase last spring.
This month 18 local organizations—banding together under the umbrella of the “Birth to Three Policy Alliance”—sent a letter to the mayor, requesting she invest $30 million in her next budget for the legislation ($22 million to raise the wages of educators, $6 million to expand home visiting, and $2 million to expand healthcare supports).
“We can’t forget that this city is in better shape financially than most communities in this country,” says Carrie Thornhill, the chair of the D.C. Early Learning Collaborative. “That allows us to do some things that other jurisdictions can’t do.”
Advocates say these are smart investments, especially as scientific evidence continues to show the bulk of brain development happens in a child’s earliest years, a period where young people learn social-emotional skills like focusing, empathy, and regulating feelings. Research suggests that greater investments in early childhood can help close the achievement gap, help more students graduate from high school, and avoid the criminal justice system.
Quality childcare, advocates say, will also help attract jobs and families to the District. A study released in September by the Center for American Progress found that since D.C. began offering universal pre-K in 2009, the city has seen a large, positive increase in its maternal labor force participation, almost entirely attributable to the preschool expansion. Part of the goal of the Birth-to-Three Act is to raise the job standards for early childhood educators, making the workforce itself more professionalized, and to pay them more.
“Generally when states talk about investments in their early childhood workforce, they’re asking what scholarships can we put in place to encourage educators to obtain higher credentials, or what bonuses can we give them once they do,” said Barbara Gebhard, the assistant director of public policy at ZERO TO THREE, a national organization focused on infants and toddlers. “It’s largely tweaking around the edges. I like that D.C.’s legislation is really targeting the problem, which is that compensation is just too low. Until we really crack that nut, we’re not going to solve the problem.”
There’s been some pushback to the city’s new requirement that early childhood workers obtain advanced degrees, a policy change leaders say will improve teaching quality. A federal lawsuit was filed this spring, arguing that D.C. requiring college credentials is an unconstitutional occupational regulation that will needlessly lock people out of the profession and cause a spike in costs for parents. “You don’t need to know how to integrate a function or write in iambic pentameter to take care of a newborn or toddler,” said a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Still, advocates and city officials say science is on their side, pointing to evidence like a 2015 National Academies report which made recommendations on improving the child care workforce. But the report, opponents point out, is “inconclusive” when it comes to the link between teacher education level and quality of instruction. Supporters counter that the report also says “almost all rigorous studies of childhood programs that have shown large effects have come from programs with licensed teachers who have bachelor’s degrees.”
The Bainum Family Foundation, based in Bethesda, has been a key driver behind the Birth-to-Three Act and the associated advocacy for it. Founded 50 years ago and long-focused on providing students with college scholarships, the foundation pivoted in 2015 to focusing on early childhood investments. A Bainum-funded report released that year detailed the wide disparities in early childhood development between rich and poor families in the District, leading to a five-year $10 million pledge to change that.
Earlier this month, the Reinvestment Fund released a new Bainum-funded report detailing the supply and demand for early learning opportunities in D.C. Among other things, the study found the city would need to add about 31,000 high-quality seats if it wanted to serve all infants and toddlers, including those who commute with parents into the District. The report also showed more than 30 percent of infants and toddlers live in areas where the cost of a center-based program exceeds 50 percent of the median household income.
“That kind of data—it’s hard to come by, and it’s frankly expensive to put together,” says Noel Bravo, the Senior Director of Program Development at the Bainum Family Foundation. “But it’s extremely important to understand the issue, and that’s one way we feel we can be helpful.”
Birth-to-Three advocates are trying to glean lessons from the District’s successful universal preschool expansion. Carrie Thornhill, a leader in that effort as well, notes one similarity: In both cases, they had the unanimous support from the D.C. Council.
Infant and toddler care was originally part of the preschool legislation, but was stripped from the bill because legislators back then had difficulty being convinced that it was truly a necessary educational reform. “Things have changed a lot since 2008,” says Thornhill. “People really do get it now.”
In September, after signing the legislation, Bowser sent a letter to Council Chairman Phil Mendelson saying that, while the goals are “laudable,” she worries the Birth-to-Three Act creates “false expectations” for families because of its cost. She encouraged the council to consider redirecting money allocated to paid family leave to the Birth-to-Three Act, a suggestion that sparked protest in the community.
“Paid parental leave is one of the most essential investments we can make in caring for our youngest kids,” says Judith Berman, the deputy director of DC Appleseed. “It really does not make sense to take money from one pot to support the other.”
LaToya Foster, a mayoral spokesperson, would not comment directly on whether Bowser still supports shifting funds from paid family leave to Birth-to-Three, but noted the mayor “has made critical investments in early childhood education and will continue to look for opportunities to do so going forward.” Foster added that Bowser thinks “we must invest strategically in our greatest needs” and recognizes child care costs “continues to substantially burden many families.”
The Child Care Aware of America estimates the average annual cost of D.C. center-based early learning to exceed more than $23,000 per year. A single parent with one child living at the federal poverty line would need to spend 91 percent of their income to afford the opportunity absent a subsidy.
According to Thornhill, Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray told the D.C. Early Learning Collaborative that an increased tobacco tax, revenue from legalized sports betting, and tapping into the city’s surplus budget are three possible funding sources for the legislation.
In a statement to DCist, Gray said that while the city had to work hard to secure funding for universal preschool, they were ultimately successful, and the same will be true for this.
“Again, as with Pre-K, we knew it would be a heavy lift,” Gray said. “While we do not have a firm timetable for funding Birth-to-Three, with Pre-K, we projected it would take five years. We did it in three. I am confident we can do the same with funding for Birth-to-Three.”