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Posted at 5 a.m. on May 7, 2014
Thinking about starting a family? Interested in having kids, but not sure when?
Start thinking about your child care options, and add your name to the waiting list for the House of Representatives day care — even if you or your partner aren’t yet pregnant.
A former House staffer who now works for a Senate Committee was reluctant to sign up before she was expecting, at the risk of “jinxing” her chances of conceiving. When she was 10 weeks pregnant, she finally gave in. “I went to sign up,” she told CQ Roll Call, “and they were like, ‘What took you so long?’ ”
Her son was accepted more than a year later, when he was seven months old.
While it’s true a staffer doesn’t have to be pregnant, they may need luck and perseverance to secure a spot. Dan Weiser, communications director for the Chief Administrative Officer, which has oversight over the House of Representatives Child Care Center, would not comment on the length of the wait list, but staffers told CQ Roll Call it is long and it can sometimes be impossible to secure a spot.
Here’s why: The House day care is a great deal — high-quality care at below-market prices. Private day care in the D.C. area can run as high as $2,000 per month for an infant, so the $1,300 (payable by direct deposit) is a huge savings. Day care rates can change as children get older and the state-mandated teacher-to-student ratio decreases.
“There is no way my husband and I could have afforded private child care,” said one House staffer, who was on the wait list for 18 months before securing a spot. “My experience is that it’s so much better than any of the other day cares really.”
“The teachers are unbelievable,” said Amelia Jenkins, senior policy adviser for the House Committee on Natural Resources, whose 4-year-old Martha finally made it in after two separate stints on the wait list. Jenkins had tried a corporate day care and found it “far inferior.” She attributes the high quality of care in part to the low turnover in teachers, who are given full government benefits. Each head teacher has a bachelor’s degree in childhood education.
Weiser noted tuition covers the operating cost of running the day care, including teacher salaries, food, diapers and field trips, but it’s below market thanks in part to the day care not owing monthly rent fees.
There are additional costs: Parents pay dues to an association and a fee for language class that brings in a teacher to sing songs to the children in Spanish. Each class has a required weekly lesson plan and twice yearly parent-teacher conferences to evaluate their child’s strengths and weaknesses.
The day care has a NAEYC stamp of approval, a prestigious certification that denotes “excellence” in early childhood education. It’s relatively hidden within the Ford House Office Building, save for the brightly colored outdoor playground where children can be seen climbing on one of the many curvy plastic-tube slides (possibly designed so no one picks up too much speed on the way down). Ford staffers host the children for an annual Halloween parade, with children in costume trick-or-treating in the office hallways.
The parents who spoke to CQ Roll Call were effusive about the day care experience — once they were able to secure a spot. More than one parent bemoaned the sibling preference which allows siblings of enrolled children to jump to the top of the list. One mother wasn’t able to enroll her son in a year when siblings of older children in the day care had been given most of the infant slots. Another attributed her son’s spot in the day care to “luck.”
“We hit a time when there weren’t a lot of siblings coming up,” said a committee staffer whose child landed a spot in the high-demand infant room. “When you walk around the day care and see lots of pregnant women, you know only siblings are getting in [the infant room] next year.”
“It was like I won the lottery,” Jenkins said, describing when she got the call about a spot opening up for her daughter in the 2-year-old room. She acknowledged it is far harder to secure a spot in the infant room than in one for older children.
Staffers rely on nannies or other private day cares until a spot becomes available. One staffer found her new arrangement better suited to her child care needs; when a day care spot finally opened, she turned it down.
One parent said she was glad to stay at her job for as long as her children were in day care. Another, whose boss is retiring, worried she wouldn’t be able to find a job that offered such a great day care option. If parents leave the federal government, they have to take their child with them — day care is only available to federal employees. A parent who switches from the House to another agency or the Senate can keep their child enrolled.
Weiser said the price is comparable to other not-for-profit day cares, such as those in other government agencies. The Senate also has a day care option, though they are separate institutions (and a potential subject for a future Hill Navigator column).
One staffer was so daunted by the ordeal she refused to pay the $75 to remain on the wait list and opted for private care near her home instead. “There aren’t enough spaces for the demand,” she said.
But the House day care has no plans to expand anytime soon and parents are reluctant to give up their coveted spots to make room for new entrants. “People will go to great lengths to keep kids in day care, including passing up job opportunities elsewhere,” said Jenkins. “Because it’s really that good. This is a model of what workplace benefits and child care should be.”