In Washington, D.C., daycare for infants and children younger than preschool-age costs $23,000 per child on average, only $2,000 less than the countrywide average for out-of-state college tuition. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, in her latest State of the District address, said high child-care costs are a major factor driving people out of the city.

Prices upwards of $2,000 per month can be a tough prospect even for relatively well-off parents. For poorer parents, these costs are out of the question, and government assistance in the form of vouchers and other programs often isn’t enough to make up the gap between what they can afford and what it takes to have any child-care options at all. Take D.C.’s child-care workers themselves. With their wages—roughly $10 to $15 per hour—they could likely never afford to have a kid in child care.

In December, D.C.'s education department promulgated a new policy that it argued put it a step ahead of the rest of the country on child-care issues. Critics, however, say that it threatens to make a bad situation—wages workers can barely live on and costs parents can hardly live with—worse. Namely, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) issued regulations that require child-care workers to have college degrees. According to the OSSE’s new rules, released in December, by 2020 directors of child-care facilities will have to have a bachelor’s degree in early childhood development, and their staff will have to get associate’s degrees in the same. (Some staff at home daycares—smaller licensed centers run out of their directors’ houses which occupy a regulatory middle ground—will also have to get a credential, a certification known as a Child Development Associate credential, or CDA, something that many already have.)

The regulations have their critics, especially among current child-care workers who say it places a burden on them that’s both unfair and unnecessary. Workers’ groups argue that they’re going to have to take expensive and time-consuming courses in off-hours from the jobs they’re already doing, and not getting paid much for. Some may not be able to get these credentials period, as many of the District's child-care workers are immigrants who do not speak English. There are few other jobs they can do.

And from the perspective of the District’s daycares themselves, the new rule presents labor-market issues: Workers with associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are likely to go into other, better-paying jobs, like teaching. D.C. may end up with more-expensive workers who are not as good with kids. And child-care centers won’t be able to easily hire experienced people from other jurisdictions, since those places don’t require the same educational credentials. The result, the argument goes, is that child care is going to become more expensive, scarcer, and possibly worse.

One angry workers’ group has organized a periodic protest outside the D.C. Council’s office blocks from the White House, and their cause is being championed by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia-based libertarian law firm that takes up public-advocacy causes and has a long history of fighting occupational-licensing regulations. “These regulations have caused a lot of fear and outrage among people who are already in the field, because you have workers who are already qualified who are going to be forced to spend thousands of dollars and hours of their time on an unnecessary education,” said Renée Flaherty, an Institute for Justice lawyer working on the case. The new regulations do come with some funding for programs that help ease some of the burden. But it's hardly sufficient to cover the need, and, anyway, for child-care workers who are being asked to earn a credential to prove they’re qualified to do jobs they’re already doing, this money hardly softens the blow.

The policy’s supporters are not unaware of the barriers to employment that occupational licensing can impose, but they see the regulations as addressing an even more urgent instance of injustice. “We have a pretty significant achievement gap in D.C. It starts as early as 18 months,” Elizabeth Groginsky, OSSE’s assistant superintendent of early learning, who oversees the regulations, told me. “Knowing that our youngest learners are having a strong start for high-quality care is a really critical piece of” the progress D.C. has made in education, she said. In that vein, supporters of the policy see it as part of an effort to address persistent disadvantages faced by thousands of the District’s kids almost from birth. “Early learning begets later learning, and we're really setting up a positive trajectory,” she said, summing up the reasoning behind the regulatory change.

Everything experts know about early brain development suggests that 5 years of age is an arbitrary point at which to start educating a child in a purposeful way. Indeed, the kindergarten cutoff was arrived at for reasons that have everything to do with mid-19th-century European cultural attitudes and nothing to do with science. Below that age, the schooling and care options are sort of a wild west, and Groginsky and the OSSE want to tame it. Institutions that care for infants and toddlers merit regulation, they say, since they’re educational facilities, and they serve a social purpose. So the new credential requirements are part of an effort to collapse the distinction between the concept of a daycare—facilities that bill themselves as a place to keep kids safe and out of parents’ hair for a fee, like a nanny—and early-childhood education facilities, which like a school actively seek to nurture very young minds in the hours parents pay for. Groginsky, in fact, eschews the word “daycare” itself as regressive. This is the boggy philosophical territory—the issue of what child care is for—that D.C. waded into.

The OSSE based its rule change in large part, Groginsky confirmed, on recommendations from a report published by the National Academies Press. The report, “Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth through Age 8,” does recommend requiring higher degrees as credentials for child-care workers, among other things. But the rest of the report doesn't exactly lead one to the conclusion that this policy is a good idea. “Existing research on the relationship between the education level of educators and the quality of instruction or children’s learning and development is inconclusive,” it admits, undermining the key recommendation. “In the absence of conclusive empirical evidence,” it reads later, explaining how it gets to its decision without research to directly back it up, “the committee draws on its collective expert judgment to make this recommendation.”

When I spoke to Bridget B. Kelly, an editor of the report, she said that there's actually another issue with the OSSE's use of the report to justify the new child-care education regulations: It looked at the question of requiring degrees for child-care workers only in theory, more as an academic question than an economic or policy one. Yet it’s been enlisted in a policy argument without many of the caveats the study’s director herself, and her co-authors, made a point of including.

The committee, Kelly told me, “was not charged with exploring deeply” the real-world implications, and she said specifically the report “doesn't consider the labor market and cost.” “From child-development science,” she said, “all of this is well-founded. But [the new regulations] put that concept into this space where the policy decisions and the implementation of those decisions, and all of the potential ramifications and pros and cons and tradeoffs, are really going to have to be grappled with. They don't just follow the logic of the science.”

Yet the science is what the OSSE invokes to justify its decision. “We continue to educate the general public and others about the importance of those early years. ... The research in the last 10 years is just profound. I think it's policy catching up with research, with science,” Groginsky said when I asked her about the criticism that policy wasn’t fully justified by the National Academies report.

Flaherty and the Institute for Justice, as well as some child-care provider groups themselves, hold that in the absence of a stronger case, the government has no basis to disagree with the contention that the competencies required for supervising young kids are intuitive or can be learned on the job. Certainly, anyway, this is how society approaches parenthood itself, the ultimate child-care role.

This gets at the heart of the matter. Credentialism has become something of a winning issue for libertarians in recent years, even spawning an Obama administration white paper that condemned the spread of pointless licensing regimes for jobs like hair-braiding—and for good reason, as occupational-licensing requirements have sprung up not just around hair salons but also in industries such as floristry and car parking.

In the case of child care, the case against regulatory intervention is more complicated. The government mandates that kids from a certain age—kindergarten age—attend an accredited school or are homeschooled in a demonstrable way. But extending that down to younger ages is deeply fraught. D.C.’s policy makers are right that daycare-aged children have educational needs. But they are trying to address those needs by regulating out of existence the daycare providers that aren’t officially educational. And that raises a host of questions even bigger than how to certify child care.

As Kelly framed it when she was talking to me about not the specifics of the National Academies report, but about child care more broadly, “If people are thinking of child care as just a place for an infant to be kept safe for the day, that's a different conversation than if people view those hours that an infant spends as a part of their learning and development. That's maybe a more fundamental question about the purpose of those spaces than the report necessarily addresses.”

So the District’s new child-care credential policy is based on the recommendation of a report that was asking a much narrower question than D.C.’s government says. Namely, the question it really looked at was: All else being equal, should child-care providers be required to have higher educational credentials? The report offered a qualified yes. But that question, and any question that begins with “all else being equal,” wasn’t the one facing D.C., one of the most unequal cities in America.

D.C.’s education regulators set out to address an issue of social injustice and place the District at the vanguard of early-childhood issues. But in threatening an already tightly limited supply of child care, they took an approach that will almost definitely backfire. Under the new regulations, it’s possible that the capital’s young children may see some improvement in education outcomes—but only if their parents can figure how to afford the tuition to Daycare State University every year. (And keep in mind that parents who rely on child care, unlike those currently funding their kids’ college educations, tend to be young, in their 20s and 30s. They haven’t been saving for decades in preparation for the expense, and they aren’t in their peak phase of lifetime earning. Additionally, they can't expect their kids to earn any money to help with the costs, as some college students do.)

The District seems unlikely to roll back the new child-care education regulations, but the backlash to the new rules already has the D.C. government looking harder at exactly what happened. The District's council, which makes its laws, voted in early June to require future OSSE regulations to be subject to a 30-day period of council review, in what two council members told me was an explicit reaction to the controversy over these regulations. As of December, when the new rules came out, the District's education agency had been able to implement regulations like these by its own authority, after notifying the public and hearing input. Some of that input was accepted in this case—directors of daycares who had been at the job for more than 10 years as of December can qualify for an exemption from the education requirements, for example. But with the actual impact on children's educational outcomes and the economic effects of the regulations on the child-care industry still uncertain, the new review process is more a fix for future problems than current ones.

As for the current controversy, the council also funded a study, the council member David Grosso told me, that will assess the economic impact of these regulations on child-care centers and workers. Its findings could potentially cause the District to tweak the regulations, he said, a positive sign for the regulations' critics. But meanwhile, current child-care workers will be faced with a looming deadline for getting degrees that will allow them to keep their jobs, and aspiring ones will face a tall new obstacle. This study is perhaps another measure that should have been taken prior to promulgating new regulations that strain parents and workers who are already stretched thin, rather than after.

If the regulations exacerbate the problem of child-care access by making it harder to staff child-care centers and thus raising costs, they will worsen another structural injustice, namely the burden care places in time and money on American parents, with moms being much more likely than dads to take the hit. It’s not just that single moms outnumber single dads by a factor of three and a half. Women report quitting jobs to care for family at nearly three times the rate men do, and they do more of the unpaid care work even in homes that strive for equality. And in countries where finding and funding child care is easier on parents, women’s labor-force participation goes up, an economic as well as a social good. All of which speaks to why regulating the industry is not only, and not primarily, a scientific issue about children’s cognition, but rather a social and economic one. The quality of child care, after all, only matters if children—and parents—have access to it.