Destroying child care to 'help' it: Part I

Bureaucrats still think government force can produce Utopia

By Steven Miller
  • Tuesday, September 29, 2009

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

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

"So, it's agreed, then," says the leader. "Any child-care operation that tries to serve low-budget 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. However, for years Nevada's child-care regulators have been trying to impose controversial new rules that would raise costs for parents and providers alike. The persistence of state officials in this effort — despite heated opposition — clearly suggests the negative consequences for parents and providers is something they find acceptable.

These new and expensive regulations that 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, throughout, 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 Silver State 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. The differing definitions that parents and national advocacy organizations give when asked to describe "quality child care" illuminate this.

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 Bureau of Services for Child Care officials that simply requiring licensed child-care providers to increase staffing to uneconomic levels would not make toddlers safer.

The reason is that Nevada's economically hard-pressed parents cannot afford the higher rates providers would have to charge to support the higher staff-to-child ratios and other personnel costs. Indeed, 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 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, babysitting 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."

The board, Kelly noted, was attempting to force higher child-care prices on low-income families and providers not only during a harsh recession, but following cuts in state and other child-care subsidies to families.

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

Indeed, in state-conducted regulatory "workgroups" — 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.

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

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