How Michigan Regulates Child Care Shows How Ineffective Licensing Laws Are

Many have arbitrary standards and mandates

My wife and I are going out on a date tonight. Our three kids — ages seven, five and two — will be left at home behind in an unregulated facility (our house) and cared for by an unlicensed practitioner (a teenage babysitter).

Sound scary? Or just a normal part of life, where we make judgment calls like this every day?

For someone who researches occupational licensing laws — the state regulations imposed on people before they can work legally — child care regulations are really interesting. People have lots of options. You could put your kids in a public or private preschool program, where state regulations mandate certain child-to-staff ratios and require employees to have college degrees. But you could also drop them at a day care center, which is also regulated by the state, which does not require employees to get a degree. Or maybe your kids stay at home, with mom or a nanny, and maybe with a few other children, where there is practically no government oversight at all.

Of all these different approaches to regulating child care, is it clear which option is the best one for your child? If you’re like me, it’s not clear at all, and it might even vary from child to child. So, whatever benefit a particular set of regulations may have, we know that it is not necessarily the best option for any given child.

Sometimes, there are attempts to impose tough regulations on child care providers. In the name of “public safety” (that’s what they always say), Washington, D.C., created a rule requiring child care workers to have a college degree. People hated it — citizen comments about the rule were overwhelmingly negative. Little wonder; the economic research shows that education and staff requirements are associated with higher costs but not noticeably better care.

The broader takeaway from this is that, on the whole, Michigan’s occupational licensing rules are arbitrary. School librarians need an advanced degree; a nanny for five kids doesn’t need anything. Barbers and cosmetologists need to log more educational hours than lawyers; restaurant cooks don’t need to ever step in a classroom. Carpenters, excavators and roofers need dozens of hours of training and must pay hundreds in licensing fees; drywallers, fencers and pavers need none. EMTs and paramedics need a few hundred hours of training but athletic trainers need thousands.

Licensing laws can play a role in the regulatory process. But, right now, they are ineffective, blocking people from the workforce while doing little to protect the public. Lawmakers should review the regulations Michigan has on the books to make sure that we have only those that make sense.