College Degrees for Child Care?

According to the Washington Post, DC is now requiring child care workers to have a college degree:

More than a decade after Washington, D.C., set out to create the most comprehensive public preschool system in the country, the city is directing its attention to overhauling the patchwork of programs that serve infants and toddlers.

The new regulations put the District at the forefront of a national effort to improve the quality of care and education for the youngest learners. City officials want to address an academic achievement gap between children from poor and middle-class families that research shows is already evident by the age of 18 months.

On Twitter, many prominent pundits panned the development, arguing that we shouldn’t make child care even more expensive than it already is. According to the plan’s critics, increasing the educational requirements for being a child carer will likely increase the labor costs associated with hiring child care workers, which will make child care out of reach for more families.

I don’t have a strong opinion on the question of whether child care workers should generally be more educated than they currently are. I know some countries (including Finland) do have various degree requirements for some child care workers. But I couldn’t say how necessary they are for things like child development and high-quality care.

However, even if you think child care workers shouldn’t be required to have a college degree, this particular argument offered by the Twitter critics is one that should be avoided.

Child care workers currently make some of the lowest wages in the country, $9.77 per hour and $20,320 per year at the median, according to the BLS. This level of compensation is unacceptably low and should be higher. After all, even moderate liberals support increasing the minimum wage to $12 per hour, implying a 23% increase in the median wages of child care workers.

To the extent that labor costs for child care make it hard for many families to afford child care, the appropriate response to that is child care subsidies. The labor costs of hiring teachers for K-12 would be intolerably high for many families to afford out of pocket. But we don’t respond to that by saying teachers should be hired without degrees and at very low wages. We respond to that by subsidizing the cost of K-12 education (to $0) so that families can afford it.

Because many families are headed by low-wage workers, you will never make child care affordable by holding down the wages of child care workers. No matter how low you hold them (assuming they are paid at least the minimum wage), there will always be a rather large swath of low-wage families who will not make enough to pay for child care out of their current income.

The question of appropriate credentials and training should be mostly separated from the question of individual affordability. If higher levels of credentials and training can be shown to improve quality substantially (whatever that might mean), then they should be imposed, and any increase in labor costs caused by that imposition should be absorbed through public subsidy.