Feature

How needless regulations are driving people into student debt and out of work

Lessons in forced schooling from a D.C. daycare provider

Immigrant Ilumi Sanchez appreciates the value of education. Before coming to the United States in 1995, she earned a law degree in her native Dominican Republic and worked as an attorney.

Her two children also graduated from college, and Sanchez helped support them with income from a home-based daycare she operates in Washington, D.C. Her husband, a doorman, also contributed, and collectively, the family has made education a lifelong priority. Yet Sanchez understands formal education is not the only path to knowledge.

Universities, colleges, and vocational schools serve a purpose, but some occupations can be learned other ways. So Sanchez fought back when Washington passed rules in 2016 requiring daycare providers to earn an associate's degree in early childhood development or a closely related field.

The new regulation, which has not yet taken effect, would force people like Sanchez to go back to school or risk having their businesses shut down. Rather than accept the violation of her right to earn an honest living, Sanchez sued to stop the rollout, and our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, represents her.

If Sanchez fails, a degree requirement inevitably would mean fewer daycare providers, and fewer providers would mean higher prices. Washington already has the nation's highest child-care costs. Among other unintended consequences, the mandate would pressure daycare providers to take student loans they cannot always afford — trapping them in debt against their will — to learn skills they do not always need.

Sanchez proves the point. She has worked with children for more than 25 years and already has credentials from a private accrediting agency. More important, her clients love her. If she lacked competence, problems would have surfaced long ago.

Regulators in Washington and beyond don't care. Nationwide, mandatory education requirements have multiplied in recent decades. About one in 20 U.S. workers needed an occupational license to earn income in 1950. Today the rate is about one in four, and many licenses include educational components.

Pennsylvania and Vermont, for example, require college for daycare staff. Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Washington, D.C. require college for interior designers. And Georgia attempted to impose a college requirement on lactation consultants until the Institute for Justice fought off the legislation in court on last month.

States also mandate vocational schooling, especially in the beauty industry. Wyoming, Hawaii, New Mexico, and Montana even require African-style hair braiders to earn cosmetology diplomas — though beauty schools rarely teach the skill. Idaho braiders faced the same hurdle until March 28, when lawmakers passed emergency reforms in response to an Institute for Justice lawsuit.

Regulators claim good intentions when they impose these requirements, but the mandates reflect a type of elitism. Many lawmakers and government officials have college degrees. Higher education is part of their identity — a rite of passage — so they assume others need the same experience.

What regulators overlook is the value of diversity. Decisions about education are deeply personal, and one size does not fit all. People should be free to choose for themselves how much schooling they want.

Aspiring chefs, mechanics, artists, musicians, journalists, entrepreneurs, and business managers already have choice. Programs are available for all these pursuits, but enrollment is voluntary. Ironically, not even college professors face government-imposed education requirements. If Sanchez wanted to teach early childhood development and found a college willing to hire her, regulators would have nothing to say.

Coercion never should be part of the equation unless regulators can show the hurdle is necessary and the least restrictive option available to protect public health and safety. Unfortunately, policymakers often act to protect special interests instead. An Institute for Justice report, published Feb. 24, finds that at least 83 percent of requests for new regulations come from occupational and professional associations — that is, lobbyists, not consumers.

This is what happened in Georgia with the decision to force lactation consultants to go to college. The lobbying group behind the law was the U.S. Lactation Consultant Association, which stood to benefit if the law had taken effect, because many of its members' competitors would have been banned from their field.

Mandatory degrees and diplomas rarely make objective sense. In states that take the time to conduct independent reviews, auditors decline to recommend occupational licensing about 80 percent of the time. Forced schooling falls apart under scrutiny.

States widen opportunity gaps when they ignore the evidence. Regulatory regimes often target higher-income fields like medicine and law, but doctors and attorneys have resources to absorb costs. Workers in lower-income occupations do not. Women, minorities, immigrants, former inmates, and other marginalized workers suffer disproportionately.

Going back to school is simply not feasible for Sanchez. She would be nearly 60 by the time she graduates, giving her a small window to repay loans. And passing courses in her non-native English would present challenges.

She believes in education. But formal schooling is not the right answer for everyone.

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