Finding Solid Footing: The Realities of Providing Quality Child Care in DC

It is a common complaint that child care is expensive in DC. In fact, the tuition rates are among the highest in the country. Parents also know that the market is competitive. There is available space in licensed programs for only one-third of children under age three. Yet, the economic realities of operating an early care and education (ECE) center or home are less well-known. DC Appleseed and the DC Fiscal Policy Institute collaborated to study the costs and challenges of operating a high-quality child care center in the District, and issued a report today with our findings.

Our research uncovered important information about the costs and experiences of delivering high-quality care. In summary, ECE providers are operating in a difficult economic situation that threatens the supply of care in DC, the ability of the workforce to earn adequate wages, and, ultimately, essential learning environments for infants and toddlers.

This is especially true of providers who serve low-income families in the District’s child care subsidy program. We found that current child care subsidy reimbursement rates cover only 66-70% of the cost of caring for an infant or toddler. While some ECE providers can make up for the gap through a mix of private tuition and fundraising, many providers are in neighborhoods where few families can afford to pay private rates. These centers, providing the highest-quality care to some of the District’s most vulnerable children, often cannot make ends meet at the end of the year.

We also confirmed what recent research indicates – that ECE professionals are among the lowest paid workers in the District economy. Despite the education requirements of the position, most infant and toddler teachers earn wages so low that they would qualify for child care subsidies. The District’s low-income children are at risk at falling behind in the persistent achievement gap. Those providing critical services to these children are falling behind themselves.

Our findings informed recommendations for District policymakers to strategically invest in ECE providers and workers. (Read more in the full report.) Among the recommendations, we call on the District to:

  • Increase child care subsidy rates and other government services to cover the 30-34% gap in revenue for providers. In addition to across-the-board increases, we suggest consideration of differentiated subsidy rates with additional funding for operating programs in census tracts with highest poverty rates;
  • Adopt and incentivize specialized professional development tracks for providers and staff, such as skills-building for serving children with special needs; and
  • Create a salary supplement program for ECE teachers and directors based on education levels and tenure.

We believe boosting resources to ECE providers and staff can reinforce the capacity of the ECE system, helping providers to sustain their businesses and ensuring that workers are adequately compensated for their skills and services. These improvements will, in turn, benefit low-income working families who rely on high-quality services to prepare their children for success in school and life.


Special thanks to the Washington Area Women’s Foundation for funding this important work.

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