Regulating child care out of financial reach

We want to make Nevada a better place for little kids, right?”

Everyone around the table nods, their eyes glistening with idealism. They’re sure they can do all kinds of good, now that they’re state regulators.

“So, it’s agreed, then,” says the leader. “Any child care operation that tries to serve low-income families by keeping its fees low must be driven out of business.”

Did such a conversation ever take place? From a literal standpoint, it’s unlikely. But the new and expensive regulations Nevada’s Bureau of Services for Child Care has been seeking to impose, since 2004, on licensed providers of private child care would powerfully impact the nature of child care in the Silver State.

Yet, remarkably, this effort has not arisen out of any mandate from the Nevada Legislature. Nor did it result from any need widely perceived by the Nevada public.

Instead, it has been an essentially ideological initiative by state employees who — sharing an agenda and a class orientation with national child care activists — believe that child care in Nevada should conform to the particular approach they favor, rather than any of the various choices currently available to parents in the marketplace.

Thus, at the root of the conflict is a discernible condescension toward the choices made by — and the values of — the swelling ranks of low-income parents.

For low-income parents especially, according to the Urban Institute’s groundbreaking National Child Care Survey, quality most often had to do with whether providers are warm and loving, reliable and experienced with children. Highest quality, here, often means a trusted relative.

For upper-income parents and child care activists, however, “quality child care” has a more technocratic and ambition-oriented cast, meaning “that which is most likely to support children’s positive development.” “Positive development,” in turn, receives its content from the early care and education (ECE) professional communities.

As a consequence, the Bureau of Services for Child Care has been pressing, since 2004, to make all Nevada child care centers replicate the upper-middle-class developmental model — even though staffing costs for child care providers become significantly more expensive under that model.

Repeatedly, over recent years, it has been explained to officials of the Bureau of Services for Child Care that simply requiring licensed child care providers to increase staffing to uneconomic levels would not make toddlers safer.

The reason is economical. Even without the new regulations the bureau is seeking to impose, parents are currently removing toddlers from licensed centers and increasingly placing them with unlicensed providers, older children or even leaving them alone during the day.

As Debbie Sherwood, who runs a Las Vegas child care center, told the board last November: “What’s going to happen is the prices are going to have to go up, the parents are going to leave and children are going to be staying home [as] latch-key kids, baby-sitting their brothers and sisters. …”

Belinda Kelly, who directs a Creative Kids Learning Center near the Spanish Trail Country Club in Las Vegas, told State Board for Child Care members that, even in her upscale neighborhood, families are backing away from licensed child care.

“Our school normally has a waiting list,” she said, “[but] since the economy has dropped, our school is running about 70 to 80 children less than what was enrolled in the last few years.”

Notwithstanding all the testimony, however, bureau officials have remained impervious to the economics of private child care.

Indeed, in state-conducted regulatory “work groups” — Nevada’s process for vetting possible new regulations — objecting owners of small, private preschools were threatened that if they themselves did not produce a bogus “compromise” backing stiffer staffing ratios, bureau officials would push to impose even harsher rules.

The bureau’s drive for regulations to change the ground rules for all licensed Nevada child care centers have more than once foundered on the skepticism of governing boards and committees. In 2006, the state Board for Child Care sent back controversial regulations of essentially the same sort that bureau officials have recently proposed. The bureau, said the board, should consult with more providers, educators and others than before and then return with proposals less controversial.

Finally, last November, bureau officials won board approval for their package of new regulations and were able to advance to the next step — placing them before the Nevada Legislature’s interim commission for final approval.

Yet both times in 2009 that the child care regulators brought their proposed new rules before Nevada lawmakers — first the interim Legislative Commission itself, and then the commission’s Subcommittee to Review Regulations — they were sent away. Each time, lawmakers were left discernibly — if oh-so-tactfully — puzzled at the bureau’s insistence on imposing its controversial new regime on the industry.

At a Feb. 9 meeting of the Legislative Commission, Assembly Speaker Barbara Buckley — the most powerful potential ally that child care regulators could hope for — sent them clear warning signals.

“I picture my son’s child care facility, and they had such warm, loving, older staff who’d been with them for years,” said Buckley, “and they could do a lot more with one person than I think some of the other child care facilities who had young people taking care of the kids could do with less experience.

“I worry about putting a burden on some of these child care facilities who are facing lots of other cuts — the cuts of our child care system’s budget, which we’re trying to not cut anymore and maybe add a little bit back. We have so many — obviously with the economy — so many challenges on so many small businesses like this that I’m just concerned about the timing.”

Buckley then suggested to fellow commission members that they ask the child care services group to withdraw the two harshest and most controversial recommendations — mandates for greater staff-to-child ratios and new, compulsive staff training.

After other commission members — including state Sen. Randolph Townsend, the commission chair — greeted Buckley’s idea warmly, the deputy state administrator for the Division of Child and Family Services, Barbara Legier, told the commission, “We’d be happy to do that,” and Townsend said he would consider the regulation withdrawn.

However, when child care services officials appeared before the commission’s Subcommittee to Review Regulations, on April 22, the core elements of offending draft regulations were still in the proposal.

Melissa Faul, chief of the Bureau of Services for Child Care, told the subcommittee that the Legislative Commission had directed her agency to take the controversial draft rules “out … and put a new phase-in period on those, which was a two-year phase-in period.”

Actually, if commission minutes are accurate, commissioners never said that. At best, Townsend gave the agency a choice: Either come back “with a new regulation that addresses the issues that are driving the problem” (i.e., the mandatory and costly new requirements), or “simply withdraw the regulation,” allowing the commission to “move on from there.”

Townsend was also a member of the subcommittee, and in April he pressed questions that revealed other discrepancies.

Although both Faul and Amber Howell, acting deputy administrator for the Division of Child and Family Services, told the subcommittee that their controversial proposed regulations were based on “national standards,” that appears inaccurate.

Instead, the rules were merely adopted from recommendations of private, national activist and advocacy groups that wish their rules — and their preference for the developmental child care model — be widely adopted and made into national standards.

Townsend also drew out how far over the line — into an essentially legislative, if not positively authoritarian, role — the unelected bureau and board had strayed.

Townsend: “Were there any bills that came out of the Legislature and were signed by the governor that required any of this?”

Howell: “No.”

Townsend: “Thank you very much.”

Parents in Nevada weren’t pushing for a makeover of private child care across the state. So why did state government set out to force it?

This fits a national pattern of the central players in the transformation of child care being not parents, but devotees of certain current child-development doctrines.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., a powerful player for decades in the effort to nationalize child care, once confessed that the “child care movement” that he and others had frequently pointed to was largely the shadow play of special-interest zealotry.

“The fact is,” boasted Miller, “that I spent eight years in getting the [1989] child care bill passed in Congress, and at its zenith, there was never a child care movement in the country.

“There was a coalition of child-advocacy groups, and a few large international unions that put up hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we created in the mind of the leadership of Congress that there was a child care movement — but there was nobody riding me. And not one of my colleagues believed that their election turned on it for a moment. There wasn’t a parents’ movement.”

What unifies the child care advocacy coalition Miller mentioned is the common belief that parents are not competent to select their children’s caregivers. It is they, the proponents and experts on current theories of early childhood education, who must set state and national rules to “protect” children from the “bad” choices their parents would make, if allowed to exercise their own traditional values.

An illuminating example is the prestigious National Research Council, often the fountainhead of advocacy coalition initiatives. The council has asked the federal government to set up a task force to develop national standards for every aspect of child care. To serve on that task force, the council recommended everyone from state politicians to full-blown federal agencies. There was one important exception: Parents were excluded.

Steven Miller is vice president for policy at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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