U.S. Senate Approves Bipartisan Child Care Grant Bill
By Alyson Klein
States would have to pay closer attention to the quality and safety of federally-financed child-care and after-school programs under a bill to make over the multibillion-dollar Child Care and Development Block Grant program, approved Thursday by the U.S. Senate.
The bill, the first comprehensive revision of the program in nearly two decades, also represents the first major, bipartisan education measure to clear the Senate recently, signaling a possible break in the legislative logjam that has stymied issues ranging from early-childhood education to workforce development. The vote cleared the chamber with overwhelming support, 96 to 2.
Still, it’s unclear just when the U.S. House of Representatives will act on the bill—and what its political path there will be.
The Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which receives roughly $5.3 billion in federal funds, plus state matching grants, was first established in the 1990s to help low-income families cover the cost of child-care and after-school programs, enabling parents to work or further their education. At the time, the program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was primarily aimed at giving as many families as possible access to care.
The new Senate bill isn’t necessarily designed to serve more children. But it would bolster the quality and safety of existing programs.
“Child care has not been re-evaluated since 1996. At that time, the program was solely envisioned as a workforce aid,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a co-author of the bill with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., said during floor debate.
“What we know today, is that this is also the time of the most rapid period of brain development. That’s why it’s imperative that we ensure our young children are in high-quality child-care programs. We need to make sure that child care nurtures their development, prepares their mind and prepares them for school. The current program is out of date.”
Under the Senate legislation, states would be required to give more thought—and steer more dollars—to program improvement by taking steps such as beefing up staff training and giving parents more “consumer information” to help them compare providers.
And states would have to set aside a greater portion of their funds to improve the quality of child-care programs, from 4 percent now to 10 percent by 2018. Many already meet that benchmark, said Grace Reef, who worked on the initial development of the program as a Senate aide in the 1990s. She is now the founder of the Early Learning Policy Group, a consulting organization based in Burke, Va.
States would also have to conduct comprehensive background checks on program providers, something that only about a dozen states call for right now, Ms. Reef said.
The measure would also require states to hold child-care and after-school providers to basic health and safety standards, such as requiring staff to be trained on hand-washing and infant sleep procedures.
“It sounds minimal, but basic health and safety training isn’t something that we require. It actually is a really important step forward,” said Hannah Matthews, the director of child care and early education at the Center for Law and Social Policy or CLASP, an advocacy organization in Washington. “Most parents assume that’s happening, they aren’t aware that their providers haven’t received CPR training, and that sort of thing.”
The legislation would also call for states to conduct at least one annual visit to licensed providers in the program, including both centers and home-based programs. Right now, most states inspect centers once a year, but only a little more than half do the same with home-based providers, Ms. Reef said.
And states would also have to check out all providers before granting them licenses. Currently, eight states grant licenses to providers without an initial inspection, according to Ms. Reef.
The measure would smooth the way for parents to hang on to their child-care vouchers despite fluctuations in income, by requiring states to allow families to prove they are eligible for the program just once a year.
Right now, on average, families receive subsidies for three to seven months, Ms. Matthews said. The bill would also call on states to take temporary changes in income into account when deciding which families get the grants.
“Sometimes families might have a modest increase in income, it doesn’t mean they suddenly won the lottery,” Ms. Reef said. “The idea is how can we promote continuity of care for children of people who might change jobs … we don’t want to terminate assistance for kids because of some paperwork issue.”
Early-childhood education advocates generally support the direction of the bill, but wish that more resources accompanied the new requirements. State spending on child-care assistance, including the CCDBG program and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant, was at a 10-year low in 2012, and the number of children receiving CCDBG-funded assistance at a 14-year low, according to CLASP.
Still, the child care block grant program was one of just handful of federal funding streams singled out for an increase in the most recent, austere budget agreement, getting a roughly $154 million boost, bringing it to roughly $5.3 billion.
The Senate debate on Thursday included a lot of bipartisan backslapping, with lawmakers congratulating one another on a smooth process and a strong bill.
Now there will be pressure on the House to take up the measure, said Laura Bornfreund, the deputy director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation.
“There seems to be a general feeling that we need to improve [early-childhood programs],” she said.
The bill could still face hurdles in the House, in part because it includes vague language on future spending levels. House leaders don’t like to take up bills that don’t include specifics on financing. Similar considerations have bogged down other education legislation in the House, including the reauthorization of the Education Sciences Reform Act.
Still, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee recently called the Senate bill a good starting point for discussions on the child-care bill in his chamber and said he’d like to hold a hearing on the issue March 25.
Early-childhood education has been a major focus in Congress and state legislatures, thanks in part to the administration’s $75 billion proposal to entice states to expand their prekindergarten offerings.
But that proposal, which has been introduced as legislation by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education panel, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee, is unlikely to make it over the legislative finish line this year, thanks in part to its high pricetag.
Early-childhood education advocates—and Sen. Harkin—have made it clear that they don’t see a revamped CCDBG program as a good substitute for the much more ambitious prekindergarten proposal, in part because the Senate bill doesn’t promise any new resources. But, even with the potential hiccups on funding, the child-care bill has a much easier path, Ms. Bornfreund said.
“This was definitely an easier win and something that could get through and I think that’s what’s politically needed right now,” she said.