Having diverse, nurturing child care options is vital for the wellbeing of children, families, and communities. The presence of these services allows children to flourish in their development and parents to grow in their careers. But across the country, communities struggle to ensure that diverse, nurturing child care services are available, with mothers—especially Black and brown mothers—impacted the most severely by the lack of options.

With child care prices reaching untenable rates, early educators facing low wages, and parents sacrificing time and resources due to a lack of care options, communities around the nation are looking for holistic solutions on how to provide accessible, affordable, and equitable child care in a way that benefits businesses and workers, too. Whether one is seeking a way to provide reliable care, greater economic opportunities, or competitive wages, Washington, D.C. has a model worth exploring.

The State of Child Care in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. has long been a leader in early childhood education efforts, beginning with their pre-K expansion initiative in 2008, which outlined a comprehensive plan toward universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-old children. As the city began offering free pre-K slots, the plan achieved admirable results for enrollment rates and was able to uplift the lives of many Washingtonian women as maternal labor force participation rates increased by 10 percent. A decade later, the District of Columbia came forward with a new plan—the Birth-to-Three for All DC Act of 2018. The law passed five years ago with ambitious goals, including expanding child care assistance to more families, establishing competitive wages for early educators, and expanding important children’s health and behavioral health programs, among others. The District of Columbia has long faced the same child care challenges as other states including high tuition prices and low wages, but passing this law was the first step in a long-term process of overhauling the insufficient systems in place. By taking a more holistic approach, the District of Columbia has been able to tackle the core issues of affordability, fair wages, quality, and equity in child care.

By taking a more holistic approach, the District of Columbia has been able to tackle the core issues of affordability, fair wages, quality, and equity in child care.

This commentary examines ways in which the Birth-toThree for All DC Act has prioritized equity and access in its program, and how it can provide a foundation for other states to pursue similar policies.

Leading in Affordability

Child care programs cannot truly be accessible for all if they are not affordable. Rising prices are an incredibly large barrier for many families seeking to access the care services they need, and the District of Columbia is not immune to this problem. A 2022 report from Child Care Aware shows the District of Columbia has some of the most expensive infant care in the United States, alongside other major cities and metropolitan areas, with center-based care for an infant costing as much as 11 percent of median income for a married couple, and 33 percent of income for a single parent. Families have to carefully navigate these financial constraints through meticulous budgets calculating the impact of taking time off work versus paying for child care—a situation that is rarely sustainable for long periods of time. When child care is not seen and funded as a public good, the financial challenge falls on parents and providers alike, each of whom typically are barely meeting their own bottom lines. The resulting soaring prices call for effective policy to make child care resources available to all families. The Birth-to-Three Act paves a path to affordability that prioritizes those affected most.

Skyrocketing, out-of-reach child care prices leave low-income families with few options. In order to effectively address issues of affordability, the Birth-to-Three Act plans to fund child care through the city’s taxes, supporting families by offering subsidies to children with the greatest economic need first. Additional families are then phased-in, based on parental income. Current subsidies, which are funded both locally and federally, reached over 9,000 infants and toddlers in 2019. More families are expected to be impacted in the future as the act requires current income eligibility standards be broadened. The Birth-to-Three Act created the framework for future policy changes to improve affordability if and when more funding becomes available. Just this year, the District’s mayor Muriel Bowser announced plans for the subsidy eligibility to rise from 250 percent of the poverty line to 300 percent in fiscal year 2024—or from $62,150 to $74,580 for a family of three—allowing even more families to access such valuable resources. According to the law, once the Birth-to-Three subsidy program is fully funded and implemented, District of Columbia families can expect to put no more than 7 percent of their annual income toward child care. This would be a sharp fall from the city’s current standing, and puts the city on track to meet U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ child care affordability benchmark. By including efforts to make early care and learning more affordable, thousands of children have been granted access to resources they otherwise would have had to forgo.

Originally, the Birth-to-Three Act also required the District of Columbia’s Department of Health to issue a grant to a nonprofit organization to provide assistance to homeless families and immigrant families with infants and toddlers. Unfortunately, this provision was struck from the act, lowering its efficacy. While it will not be implemented in the District of Columbia, states should note the importance of including groups that are at risk for not being able to access social services. All constituents—regardless of their socioeconomic status—should be able to afford and utilize child care and early education programs.

Paying Fair Wages

Early educators provide an incredibly valuable resource to society, assisting in the development of future generations. Despite being such an impactful career, people who work in child care and early education are often undervalued, and almost always underpaid. This experience is nothing new, resulting from a long and rigorous legacy of slavery, and rooted in sexism, racism, xenophobia, and other prejudices. This legacy persists today, and low wages make it challenging for early educators to achieve economic stability or get ahead. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute, early educators are paid an average hourly wage of $13.51 across the nation—about half of the median take home pay of workers in other fields. Not only have early educators typically receive lower wages, but also, as the National Women’s Law Center found, pay for early educators was stagnant during the pandemic, trailing the wage growth of just about any other low-paid occupation during that time, further underscoring the unique disparities faced by care workers. Fair wages support workers to improve their financial and mental wellbeing, and child care centers and family child care homes to retain talent.

The Birth-to-Three Act directly addresses the wage disparities experienced by early educators. The act mandates the creation of a “competitive compensation scale,” requiring that early educators be paid at rates similar to those who teach in elementary schools. While K–12 teachers also are paid wages that do not reflect their true value to society, bringing early educator wages up to those of elementary teachers would result in a significant income increase for many of these workers. Washington, D.C. made its first step toward increasing pay in 2021, when the City Council convened the Early Childhood Educator Equitable Compensation Task Force. Using recommendations from organizations such as DC Action, the group developed a plan to increase early educator pay by providing additional payments of up to $14,000 for teachers of children in preschools and child care centers. In 2022, the council passed legislation requiring the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to implement a compensation program for early educators, with revenue generated from a tax on wealthy households that was approved in the fiscal year 2022 budget. The program continues to provide assistance for teachers, and continues to be financed in perpetuity.

Advocates of pay increases for early educators must understand that these increases will not come without government action and investment. For providers to increase wages without government subsidies, they would need to increase the price of care to families, leaving many of them unable to afford such care. Lawmakers in other states must recognize that affordable, accessible child care that also pays decent wages to its workers is a public good and thus must work to actively seek out solutions to best support care workers, including making a legislative commitment to raising wages. By pledging fair pay and providing supplemental payments, the District of Columbia has not only stabilized the sector for families seeking care, but also has laid a foundation for its early educators to grow and thrive in the positions they hold.

Investing in High-Quality Child Care Options

In conjunction with providing higher wages for workers, child care policy should also help improve the quality of care being provided to communities. Fair pay is a strong start toward ensuring high-quality care, as it helps retain a well-trained workforce that can consistently support children’s needs. When investing in high-quality care, child care policies should allocate resources to facilities and workers in a way that ensures that all children have an even playing field and are supported so that they can thrive in the future. Low-income communities often have limited access to care to begin with, and the resources that are available are likely underfunded or less plentiful than those in a wealthier community. The Birth-to-Three Act identifies a number of ways to support and uplift workers and facilities in order to provide the best quality care for families in underfunded areas.

One of the primary tools the city chose to help improve the quality of care was training and educational programs for workers. For example, the law requires the University of the District of Columbia to partner with community-based child development centers to offer classes in their Early Childhood Infant and Toddler degree program. This degree program allows participants to gain hands-on experiences working in child care, allowing them to understand how to approach different scenarios and care for different types of children. Similarly, Birth-to-Three establishes a Lactation Certification Preparatory Program for those interested in becoming licensed in the field of lactation consulting. Both of these programs ensure that workers have a smooth transition into the workforce and have a bank of knowledge to ensure that the children they care for receive the quality of care they deserve. Not all efforts toward professionalizing the industry are universally welcomed, however, with some even bringing controversy, as certain criteria may bar passionate care workers from doing the job they love. For example, when the District of Columbia increased education requirements for early educators—a policy separate from the Birth-to-Three Act—the city was met with legal opposition in defense of workers. Advocates need to remember that while quality should be invested in, early educators should be supported in the process.

It is also vital that policymakers consider the range of quality of the providers available to families. Child care facilities in the District of Columbia are labeled based on a Quality Rating and Improvement System, with each facility given one of four labels to indicate their quality. Facilities labeled as “developing,” for example, provide a more basic level of care, and those programs labeled “high-quality” provide care that is more responsive and attends to children’s physical and mental wellbeing. The rating system offers targets for what earns a higher quality ranking, but quality can also be achieved through investments in the workforce and providing underfunded facilities with greater resources.

The District of Columbia recognizes that families should have the opportunity to choose from a greater range of quality levels when seeking care for their children. As such, child care subsidies are applicable to every level of care, meaning that families can utilize the funds outside of their own community and have the chance to access different resources. While this solution does not address all care quality challenges, given that families of all income levels should have close and direct access to high-quality facilities, it provides a foundational step for children of all backgrounds to access greater resources.

Working Toward a More Equitable Future

When taken together, affordability, fair wages, and quality all work towards the same goal: making a more equitable future for District of Columbia residents. Washington, D.C. has a diverse population, meaning many of its residents are those most disadvantaged by a lack of early care policies. The District of Columbia is 45 percent Black and 11.7 percent Hispanic or Latino, with 13.5 percent of residents being foreign-born, and 16.5 percent of the population living in poverty. Residents of these communities are often paid less for their work, work jobs with nontraditional hours, and are more likely to live in child care deserts—factors that make it incredibly difficult for them to find child care. By taking initiative, the District of Columbia is working toward creating a more equitable society for all of its constituents, where families and children throughout the entire city can expect the same opportunities for exceptional care and economic opportunity, allowing everyone in a community to thrive.

One of the demographics that benefits most from the provisions of the Birth-to-Three Act is women. Many women struggle to find a balance between being the primary caregiver in their own home while also trying to participate in the labor force. When child care is made accessible and affordable, many women are granted the economic freedom to pursue a career, while simultaneously being able to enroll their child in an early care program. Additionally, mothers who themselves work in the child care field—particularly Black and Latina mothers—face higher rates of poverty compared to other women in the field. By providing these workers with fair wages, the Birth-to-Three Act directly works to bring many women of color out of poverty, and addresses issues of past and present racism and sexism that has followed these women throughout their careers. Whether one is a mother, a care worker, or both, expanding access and affordability makes child care more equitable for women.

Washington, D.C.’s Birth-to-Three Act and the ways it has been implemented are a good example of a policy that addresses financial accessibility for parents, compensation of workers, and the health and wellbeing of children. Washington, D.C.’s relationship with child care policies is not perfect—they could still benefit from greater investments, with some advocates estimating the program will require $500 million to be fully implemented by 2028. However, with so much progress merely five years into its implementation, it can serve as a foundation for other states’ early care policies. These investments allow families, children, and their communities to flourish. Other states should take into consideration the holistic outlook of the District of Columbia’s initiative and consider ways that they can support families and create a more just future for all.

The author would like to thank Ruqiyyah Anbar-Shaheen for her input and review.