A schoolteacher attempts to catch snowflakes while leading her students to a library from school in Harlem, New York. Adrees Latif/Reuters

In an effort to improve outcomes for kids, education wonks are making life harder for workers who rely on daycare employment.

Adriana Gomez has a narrow window of time in the morning to prepare the room at Semillitas Early Learning Center while her staff keeps the kids occupied playing outside. It’s about to be naptime and Gomez spools worn blankets onto pint-sized plastic cots as she talks to me. Though Gomez has been director at Semillitas, a Spanish immersion daycare center in a well-heeled corner of northwest Washington, D.C., for five years, the physical hustle of the work is just as rigorous for her as it is for her nine staff members. Soon, she fears she'll have much less help, thanks to new city licensing requirements that mandates early childhood providers to scramble back to the classroom, this time as students themselves.

In December of 2016, the Washington, D.C., Office of the Superintendent for State Education adopted a new policy: Daycare center directors must complete a bachelor’s degree, lead teachers must complete an associate’s degree, and assistant teachers must earn a credential known in the field as a childhood development associate (CDA) by December 2020. In some cases, employees must meet interim benchmarks along the way, by as early as the end of this year.

It’s a policy that’s popular with education advocates and progressive reformers. Preschool and some pre-kindergarten instructors are already subjected to similar requirements: More than half of 57 state-funded pre-K programs and the federally funded pre-K Head Start programs have such requirements in place, as the New York Times noted in April. Many studies and analyses suggest that the educational attainment of daycare instructors is a key component of the sort of “high-quality” daycare that yields “lifecycle benefits” beyond early childhood, including health, income, and IQ. Its popularity among education advocates—and its serious consideration by Washington, D.C.—appears to have followed a 2015 report from the National Academy of Sciences, which explicitly recommended such requirements for early childcare providers.

But the Times piece also cited several analyses that found it impossible to determine causation: Did kids who attended daycare and preschool classrooms with educated teachers fare well because those teachers had obtained degrees, or because those were the same classrooms with the best resources for the teachers to provide quality care?

D.C. wants to prove its place at the forefront of progressive policy by becoming the first major city to implement such a plan—it will be the first to extend any such requirements beyond publicly funded daycare centers. But, as with several other early adoptions of liberal urban policies, implementation has thus far proven to be a case of progressive intentions that ultimately pinch the working poor, immigrants, and minorities—the very people reformers intend to help.

The teachers at Semillitas must overcome significant language barriers in order to earn degrees. Few of them speak any English. There’s also a question of time: How to squeeze in classes around their work in the daycare centers, for which they barely make minimum wage. Most also have young children of their own.

Gomez says her staffers have already told her that, barring any reversal of the policy, they’ll have to leave Semillitas, and likely the childcare profession altogether.

The city has been responsive to the financial needs of workers who are now faced with degree requirements: Many childcare professionals in D.C.and nationwide receive scholarships through a program known as Teacher Education and Compensation Helps (T.E.A.C.H.), which pools local and federal funding sources along with some employer contributions. But most scholarship applications, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, require proof of American citizenship and, in some cases, may even bar those with temporary legal status from applicability.

Last year, Gomez attended protests at a D.C. City Council meeting and met with council members and city officials. After meeting with those like Gomez, whose employees or families have significant language barriers, the city added additional, Spanish-language courses to the online training platform it provides, which offers remote coursework toward a CDA, according to a D.C. spokesman. And the city’s superintendent of education recently announced it was extending timelines to meet the requirements by one to three years, depending upon the degree program, along with a slew of other initiatives aimed at helping to ease the burden of the requirements: for example, close collaborations with the few local universities that offer the CDA degree, and a traveling "help desk" of city officials to provide more information.

But Gomez says that, while officials have attentively listened to their concerns, “I don’t think they are trying to work with us to say, ‘Let's work something out.’” In other words, these new requirements are likely to stay. A November of 2017 statement from the city’s Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang seems to confirm this: The city, Kang said, “is committed to supporting D.C.’s community of child development providers to ensure stability and sustainability during the transition to the new staffing requirements.’

While Semillitas serves mostly white-collar professional families seeking to give their kids an immersive language education, daycare centers that serve lower-income families have bigger challenges still: They’re also under pressure to keep childcare costs low.

Unlike Gomez, Myrna Peralta, the president and chief executive officer of the city’s largest bilingual daycare provider, is optimistic city officials have, and will, work around their challenges. Her center, CentroNía, provides an in-house program to complete CDA coursework in Spanish. Although it cannot formally certify the teachers, CentroNía offers scholarships for workers headed back to school, and partners with organizations that offer English as a Second Language courses. While about 90 percent of Peralta’s staff already meet the new requirements, many of the remaining staff are bilingual, making them difficult to replace. CentroNía requires both English- and Spanish-dominant teachers in each classroom. If that teacher must leave for an afternoon or evening class, Peralta must pay both the substitute and the full-time teacher.

Employee retention could take a hit at smaller daycare centers just as easily, as teachers become qualified for higher-paying positions, or move on to pre-K or elementary school careers. If they’re able to command higher salaries, that would drive up the already prohibitive costs on most daycare centers—yet another ding for those already struggling to afford any kind of daycare.

Gomez, who hails from Colombia but has lived in the United States for 12 years, isn’t able to pay her staff much above minimum wage, but she believes it’s still among the better gigs around for someone still struggling to learn English.

“These are lawyers, engineers, architects, one who nearly finished medical school,” Gomez says. “I have always had great professionals. Their limitation is just their language skills. This is a good job that they can have.”

Language skills made Ximena Lugo-Latorre, 34, a valued CentroNía employee. The bilingual Colombian has been working in daycare centers in the U.S. since 2003. She says her supervisors initially wanted to promote her, but could not give her a raise until she completed an associate’s degree, in line with the new policy. The single mother of seven-year-old twins says she felt pressure to complete that degree by the end of 2017 in order to keep her job.

Each day, Lugo-Latorre left work at 4 p.m. to get to school, where classes lasted until 8:30 p.m., followed by a long bus ride home, where a friend was staying with her daughters until she got home. During one semester, Lugo-Latorre took a full load of community college courses. By mid-terms, she was emailing professors from the emergency room, where she landed after suffering a fainting spell and a panic attack. (Disclosure: Lugo-Latorre was a student of mine at the University of the District of Columbia’s Community College in the spring of 2017.)

“I kept telling myself, ‘I have to finish, I have to finish,’ but I was crying and crying and so tired,” Lugo-Latorre says.

Ultimately, Lugo-Latorre found a higher-paying job at a private daycare center affiliated with Georgetown University—not licensed by or subject to the city’s requirements. She still plans on completing her degree, but isn’t subject to the same deadline pressure.

As so many teachers like Lugo-Latorre must choose between an overstuffed schedule and a move to a different school (or career), advocates and policymakers in other cities will surely be watching D.C. for some time in order to see what daycare looks like decades from now—for parents, teachers, and children alike.

This story originally appeared on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine in print and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.

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