Child Care Grant Program to Sail Through Senate

By Allie Bidwell 

The Senate is expected to overwhelmingly pass a bipartisan bill to update the federal Child Care and Development Block Grant Act on Monday, sending the legislation to President Barack Obama for approval. 

The federal program – which provides billions of dollars in state aid annually to help low-income families afford child care services – has been due for reauthorization since 1996, and is likely the last education-related bill Congress will pass before new legislators enter office. Spearheaded by Sens. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., the bill will require background checks on all child care providers and at least one annual inspection of providers, among other provisions. 

Sarah Rittling, national director of the First Five Years Fund – an early childhood education advocacy group – says the organization is “thrilled” the bill is moving through in a cooperative manner. The Senate first passed the bill 96-2 in March, and the House amended and passed the measure in September. 

“This reauthorization has been long overdue, and Congress really in a tremendously bipartisan way came together and used early childhood education, and this bill in particular, as a real bipartisan move through the regular-order legislative process,” Rittling says. “Having it across the finish line means a lot for children and their families.” 

Rittling says it’s perhaps taken so long to reauthorize the bill because the program was “running and doing well and helping children get into programs.” 

“Why it took so long, I couldn’t say, but it’s not because it was a controversial issue that Congress didn’t want to contend with,” Rittling says.

The program was first established in 1990 under former President George H.W. Bush. States receive federal grants to award low-income families with vouchers they can use to pay for child care at their home, at a relative’s house or at a child care center. Each month, the program serves roughly 1.5 million children, according to a release from Mikulski’s office. 

“Every family deserves child care that is affordable, accessible and exceptional,” Mikulski said in a statement Sunday. “This bill reforms and refreshes important child care legislation, so moms and dads of modest means can afford child care while they go to work or school. Child care is something all families worry about, regardless of income or ZIP code. People want care that is reliable and undeniable, safe, affordable and accessible. This bill helps ensure that all children get the care they need and deserve so they and their families can have a better, brighter future.”

On average, child care costs nearly $15,000 per year for two children, according to the statement. But an October analysis from the Center for Law and Social Policy found participation in the program fell for the third year in a row last year, and reached a 15-year low of 1.46 million children per month on average. At the same time, federal funding for child care fell to a 10-year low. Just 18 percent of children eligible for assistance under the program were receiving help, the center found.

The center said the improvements to the program “will be for naught unless we stem the tide on this declining participation and take seriously the need for significant investments in child care at the federal, state and local levels.”

Rittling says many of the changes to the program stem from new research and knowledge about how the brain develops through age 5, and efforts to ensure children are in high-quality programs. One such change will eventually require states to set aside at least 9 percent of their funding under the program for quality initiatives, which is a 5 percent increase than what’s currently required. 

“I can’t say how pleased we are that of all the issues out there, ours is the one that’s brought everyone together and shown the process can work and work well,” Rittling says. “We’re eager to get it through. The hard work is in implementing and finding the money for these improvements that were made.”

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