How Preschool Works in Washington, D.C.

A 3-minute guide to preschool and child care in Washington, D.C. Learn about licensing laws, instructor training, and enrollment requirements — everything you need to know to choose the right program for your child.

Takeaway: Washington, D.C. has many options for early childhood care, and leads the nation in access to pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. It has well-established early childhood learning standards that aim to integrate with the Common Core State Standards used in older grades. Most caregivers are licensed, and the city provides financial subsidies for families to enable them to access programs.

Overview

Washington, D.C. offers a variety of early childhood care and education opportunities, including center-based and home-based programs as well as public and private pre-K. The city has income-based subsidy supports for its residents to enable them to access full- or part-time child care with a provider and setting of their choosing. The District of Columbia is one of the few cities across the country to offer universal public pre-K to children between 30 months and 5 years old, a fact that demonstrates a deep commitment to providing high-quality early childhood learning experiences to the city’s youngest residents.

The District licenses most early childhood providers and publishes learning standards for young children that align with the Common Core State Standards adopted for older grades. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has created a ratings system, known as Going for the Gold, to enable families to measure the quality of programs.

Washington, D.C.’s online search for child care centers and homes is clear and easy to use, as are its tools for finding pre-K programs. Families can filter by type of provider, child’s age, scheduling, geography, provider language, and other services or special needs. Results for centers and homes are displayed in a list as well as on a map, and provide contact information, operating hours, facility capacity, and age range served. Pre-K program profiles are extensive and nuanced, with information about facilities, programs, demographics, funding, family engagement, student outcomes, and more.

Center-Based Care

Licensed early childhood care, as well as some before- and after-school programs, can be found in facilities known as Child Development Centers. These offerings can range in size from programs that serve small numbers of children to entire centers that enroll more than 150 participants. Providers must meet specified inspection schedules for fire safety and the absence of lead, as well as staffing requirements defined in the District’s licensure standards.

Center directors, teachers, assistant teachers, and aides are mandated to undergo background checks and meet minimum education, experience, training, and competence in early childhood care that aligns with their professional level and expertise. For example, a director could meet these requirements with some combination of a higher education degree in early childhood development, a Director’s Credential, and a certain number of years of experience. All staff must take part in 18 hours of professional development annually.

These centers must have two staff members present with each group of children; one individual must be a teacher or the director, while the other can be an assistant teacher or aide. Caregiver-to-child ratios and group enrollment follow these guidelines: For infants ages birth to 24 months, the group size limit is 8 or 9, with a staffing ratio of 1:3 or 1:4; groups of toddlers between 24 and 30 months are capped at 12, with a ratio of 1:4; children from 30 to 36 months may not exceed 16 per group, with a ratio of 1:8; and the group size for 4- to 5-year-olds cannot exceed 20, with a staff ratio of 1:10.

In addition to center-based early childhood care, the District of Columbia offers universal, full-day public pre-K to children between the ages of 30 months and 5 years. These programs are available through district schools, participating public charters, and publicly-funded community-based organizations. Class sizes are limited to 16 for 3-year-olds and 20 for 4-year-olds, with teacher-to-children ratios of 1:8 and 1:10, respectively. The city has the highest percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in pre-K as compared to all 50 states, and ranks at the top in per-pupil spending, as well. Moreover, its ongoing efforts to develop high-quality programming with continual improvements has enabled it to meet or exceed eight out of ten national benchmarks.

In the recent past, the city has been criticized for pre-K application practices that were byzantine, fractured, and favorable to families who knew how to game the system. In 2014, Nobel Prize winner Alvin Roth (who also created the New York City public high school matching process) designed a unified lottery system that allows families to rank 1 to 12 choices, and gives them a match based on their preferences, proximity to the school’s location, and whether the family has a sibling currently enrolled. This system has reduced both frustration and waitlist lengths significantly.

Home-Based Care

Residents of the District of Columbia may also place their young children in licensed settings known as Child Development Homes. These providers care for up to six children in the caregiver’s home, with no more than two toddlers under the age of 2 or two non-ambulatory children in the group. Each provider must meet specific licensing requirements that include certain health and safety training mandates, child development coursework, and minimum education and age standards.

Similarly, the city offers Expanded Child Development Homes in which 6 to 12 children are cared for by a primary caregiver and one or two other staff members. Primary providers of this option must meet slightly more stringent age and education requirements, but the caregiver-to-child ratios are comparably scaled.

Unlicensed Care

Certain types of child care are legally exempt from licensure requirements, and include occasional babysitting in a sitter’s home, parent-led play groups, day care offered during religious services, and care provided by a relative. Programs that are run by the federal government on government property are also exempt.

Discover Washington, D.C. preschools near you using the free Noodle preschool search, the most comprehensive tool of its kind.

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