A zoning fix for child care can apply to education too

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Child care in New Hampshire is often hard to find and, when you do, expensive. A bipartisan group of legislators has offered families some relief in a surprising way: zoning reform.

Child care offered to small groups of children in a caregiver’s home was once a popular option for many families. But professionalization and regulation of the industry produced a shift toward large (and expensive) commercial day care centers. A lot of families looking for cheaper alternatives today wonder where the old-fashioned, home-based child care providers went.

Many municipalities, it turns out, have passed zoning regulations prohibiting or restricting them.

“Many state and local governments have considered home daycares a ‘problem use’ and have therefore used zoning restrictions to ban them. Such restrictions reduce the availability of childcare in the affected neighborhoods and further increase the price of childcare services,” the Cato Institute’s Ryan Bourne has found.

House Bill 1567 would fix that in New Hampshire by requiring local zoning regulations to allow family child care programs as an accessory use (by right) to any primary residential use. 

Such home-base child care programs would be allowed “as long as all requirements for such programs adopted in rules of the department of health and human services (He-C 4002) are met,” the bill states.

Child care is expensive for many reasons, some of them regulatory. It is particularly expensive in New Hampshire. 

According to Child Care Aware, child care in New Hampshire costs an average of $10,140 per year for an infant in family child care and $10,400 for a toddler in family child care. For an infant and toddler in center-based child care, New Hampshire families are spending an average of $15,340 and $14,235 per year, respectively. 

On the “low end,” then, family child care for an infant accounts for 21% of per capita income in New Hampshire and 11.2% of medium household income in the state, while center-based child care for a toddler represents 29.5% of per capita income and 15.7% of medium household income in New Hampshire.

For context, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services considers its benchmark for affordable child care to be 7% of income. 

HB 1567 would not solve this problem, but it would help lower costs by largely doing away with “problem use” restrictions in residential zoning districts. This change would open more of the state to home-based family child care, free up the supply of those services, and, in turn, help reduce prices. 

This is a smart and efficient way to help lower child care costs by removing an unnecessary regulatory barrier that prohibits the entry of low-cost competitors into the marketplace. 

Legislators could achieve similar results by applying this same approach to a similar service: education.

Since the COVID-19 school closures, interest in small-scale education alternatives has exploded. Many families would love to send their children to home-based education providers in their own neighborhoods. But as teachers and former teachers have begun offering these services, they’ve sometimes run into the same zoning problems troubling many would-be day care providers. 

Kerry McDonald, senior education fellow with the Foundation for Economic Education, wrote two years ago for the Josiah Bartlett Center about a New Hampshire educator who encountered this problem: 

For Becky Owens in Chester, trying to offer sporadic homeschool programs on her farm property turned into a regulatory headache that likely would have deterred many other aspiring education entrepreneurs from moving forward. Owens had been homeschooling her own five children for several years, after pulling her oldest son from the local public elementary school because it wasn’t a good fit for her shy, sensitive boy. She wanted a more personalized educational environment for him and her other children that would be responsive to their individual learning needs and styles.

A college professor for 15 years with a Ph.D. in education, Owens decided to create that personalized learning environment, and eventually expand her offerings to other children in her community. In 2020, she decided to host occasional nature hikes on her property for small groups of local homeschoolers. She had a handful of students register for one of her hikes, and she placed a chalkboard sign in front of her house with the words “Farm Rich Nature Hike” so families could find her.

This simple gesture set off a cascade of events involving the local building inspector, who issued her a “cease and desist” letter for her farm walks. Over the subsequent weeks, Owens had to prepare numerous documents for local officials, including an aerial view of her property, and appear before the planning board to ask for permission to operate as a home-based business. She also had a property inspection from the local fire chief, even though her program was held entirely outside. All of this was required just so Owens could welcome a few children to her property for a nature walk. Her walks never exceeded 10 kids.

And although these local regulatory roadblocks didn’t stop Owens (eventually she got approved to operate as a home-based business), she’s the exception that proves the rule. Who knows how many other aspiring education entrepreneurs seeking to offer alternative learning environments have either given up when faced with such prospects or haven’t even tried. 

As with child care, some municipalities don’t allow “education” services to be offered in residential zones even if all other regulations are followed and there’s no impact on the neighbors. The provision of the service itself is forbidden.

HB 1567 offers a blueprint for how the state can easily expand the marketplace for needed services simply by allowing home-based providers to offer them on a small scale, provided the service doesn’t violate other rules that offer legitimate protections for consumers and neighbors.