Why is Finding Child Care in Washington DC So Notoriously Difficult?


ny parent who has looked for a daycare in Washington DC (or probably any other large city) can relate to the frustration of year-long waitlists. Child care costs are quite astounding here (DC wins the trophy of the most expensive place for child care), and yet finding a daycare or preschool can be darn hard. Why!? We’ve been asked this question a number of times while building CareLuLu, a website to help parents find a great daycare or preschool, so we decided to discuss it in this post.

1. There is no actual shortage of child care slots in Washington DC. This may come as a surprise, but there are in fact just as many openings in daycare centers and in-home daycares as there are children needing care. According to Child Care Aware of America, there are 24,770 spaces in DC for 24,552 children under the age of 6 potentially needing child care (2012 numbers.) Almost a perfect match! However…

2. Child care centers are not always located in areas where there’s demand. In highly concentrated urban areas, especially where rent is high, there are fewer child care providers because of greater operation costs. Well, DC definitely falls into the high rent category! However, certain neighborhoods have more demand than others and if you’re willing to drive a few miles (or dare I say it, cross the bridge into Virginia!), you may get lucky.

3. Not all preschools have waitlists, just the ones you’ve heard of. Parents hear about the same preschools over and over again. This can be because they really are fantastic, or because they do a great job with PR and marketing. Since everyone knows them, they tend to have waitlists. There are, however, other fantastic options with openings. They just don’t have the means or know-how to market themselves as effectively.

4. As parents, we contribute to the illusion that there are waitlists everywhere. In highly urban areas like DC, parents tend to “play it safe” by putting their kids on several child care centers’ waitlists. You know, just so we can have a choice, or at least make sure that we’ll get a spot somewhere. Of course, this is understandable (especially if you have no backup plan), but it creates the illusion that there are no openings anywhere.

5. Alright, it’s actually a bit harder in Washington DC than in other places! While it’s true that there are as many openings as there are children needing care in DC, it’s also true that in other States (like VA or MD), there are more spots available than there is demand. So why is there a more balanced supply/demand in DC? Higher rent is one reason as described earlier but there are other potential reasons. For instance, DC is one of the few places in the country that offers free universal preschool. I’m not saying that people move to DC for that reason, but it can play a role. It did for this mom.

So while it can be harder to find a daycare or preschool in DC than in other places, there are actually enough openings to accommodate all the parents looking for care. You may need to drive a few miles or look for a home-based daycare if centers are full, but you should find a spot. Oh, and of course, our free CareLuLu resource can help you find that perfect daycare!

About the author

Patrick Matos

Founder and Dad

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