New guidelines have been enacted at the Senate Employee Child Care Center to give children of Senate employees a leg up in the admissions process, which can see families wait more than a year for an open spot.
Although the center is frequently cited as a model day care provider, some Senate employees have complained that the facility does not prioritize children of Senate workers in its admission process as strongly as it should.
Under the new policy, which was enacted in May, children of non-Senate employees will not receive higher priority than those whose parents do work for the Senate, according to a senior member of the center’s board of directors.
“I think that the board made a sound family planning decision in trying to better meet the needs of the Senate community and our membership,” the board member said. “We’ve taken meaningful steps to change the enrollment process to give Senate families priority.”
Now, siblings of a child enrolled in the center whose parents work in the Senate (or the day care center) are offered first admission.
Children of Senate and Senate day care workers get next dibs, followed by siblings of a child enrolled in the facility but whose parents work in another entity of the legislative branch and then children whose parents work in the legislative branch.
Siblings of a child already enrolled in the center but whose parents are not employed by the legislative branch are next, with children whose parents do not work in the branch getting last priority.
“It made it so that non-Senate siblings no longer get a preference above Senate staff,” the board member said.
But the new policy isn’t without some controversy.
Some Senate parents have noted that parents are still able to keep their children in the center even if they move into the private sector, which differs from a change in policy recently made at the House of Representatives Child Care Center.
The House center mirrors the Senate’s admission policy in that it prioritizes children of House employees first, followed by those whose parents work in other legislative branch agencies and then the rest of the federal government, according to Dan Beard, the House’s Chief Administrative Officer.
But there is one key difference.
The House recently enacted a policy requiring those who leave their jobs in federal government to find a new facility for their children within 60 days.
“The waiting list was getting too large,” Beard explained, adding that the chamber’s priority must be for House workers.
In the Senate, children are allowed to remain at the facility even if their parents leave the chamber.
The board member defended that policy, arguing that the House day care center is one of the few government facilities that has enacted such a requirement.
“We work in such a transitional environment,” the board member noted, pointing to the recent death of Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.).
“It is hard to put families in the position of finding child care while also trying to find a job in a 60- to 90-day time period, when waiting lists for under 2 [years of age] are in excess of a year and a half throughout the Washington, D.C., area,” she said.
It also can be difficult to pull young children out of a day care program they have become accustomed to and feel safe in, the board member said.
“When children hit six months to about a year and a half, they go through a very strong bonding phase with their caretakers and people they know,” she said.
Other Senate parents have complained that the new policy does not apply to non-Senate families who already were on the waiting list. Under the old policy, as long as a child had a sibling at the center, they received high priority.
The board member said many families have been on the list for months.
“To randomly change that process retroactively without fully informing the membership and the Senate community on a moving-forward basis undermines family planning and faith in the process,” she said, adding that the concerns of those Senate parents who are still waiting to enroll their children is very understandable.
In February, Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and ranking member Bob Bennett (R-Utah) asked Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson to conduct a study of the center’s admission policies.
That study is expected to be completed soon, according to Howard Gantman, a spokesman for the Rules Committee.
“The new admissions policy is an important step in the right direction,” Gantman noted.
Other legislative branch agencies also maintain day care facilities, and each has a unique way of admitting children.
At the Little Scholars Child Development Center at the Library of Congress, siblings of children currently enrolled get first preference, followed by children of Library employees, grandchildren of Library employees, children of employees who work in legislative offices, children of employees who work in the federal government and all others.
The Tiny Findings Child Development Center serves the Government Accountability Office — but GAO parents do not necessarily get the highest dibs. Siblings of children enrolled in the center get first priority, followed by scholarship-eligible children, children of Tiny Findings employees, children of GAO and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (the USACE maintains offices in the GAO building), the children of other federal workers and the public.
Most child care centers in the Washington region have waiting lists, experts admitted.
Beard noted that the House day care waiting list varies depending on age group. It is especially long for children aged 2 and younger, because the infants require more attention than older children.
“We usually can accommodate [parents] if they have a 5-year-old,” Beard noted.
The CAO’s office also recently signed a contract with the firm ICF International to conduct a study examining ways to decrease — and possibly eliminate — the House waiting list, Beard said. The results of that study are expected by August, he added.
The Senate board member also noted that waiting lists for younger children are much longer than their preschool-aged peers.
“Most people get on five to 10 waiting lists for an infant if they are planning to go back to work,” she said.
As of May 8, 163 families were on the Senate waiting list, with the bulk trying to get spots for children under 2. That number will fluctuate over the next few months, as center staff prepare to transition children into higher-age programs come fall.
Senate day care officials also are working with the Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and the Rules Committee to develop an online service that will allow parents to monitor their place on the waiting list.
An online waiting list would provide greater transparency to the process, Gantman said. It also would allow parents to ensure the information on the list itself is accurate, the board member noted.