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Senate Education Committee Gives Bipartisan Approval to Child Care Legislation

Who says Congress can't be bipartisan? The Senate education committee today gave swift, unanimous approval to a bill that would revise the $5.2 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which hasn't gotten a makeover since 1996.

When the program was first created, back in the 1990's, it was seen primarily as a way to help parents enter the workforce, or get job training. This renewal, however, puts a greater emphasis on the quality of the child care programs children are entering.

"The last reauthorization of this program took place nearly 20 years ago, when child care was principally seen as a work support activity and seen only incidentally as something that could have a great impact on the development of children," Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said. "Today, backed up by impressive scientific research, we know that this program can and should be much more. In addition to providing vital work support for parents, it should be a rich early-learning opportunity for children."

And there was a lot of bipartisan back-slapping...something Congress doesn't get to do much of these days.

"This is the way the Senate should work,"said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., one of the primary authors of the legislation. "This bill is the result of significant bipartisan effort."

The program, which is administered by the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, gets about $5.2 billion a year in federal funding, plus state matching funds. The money helps states provide grants to low-income parents to cover the cost of child care and after-school care, typically through a voucher that parents can use at the home-based program or child-care center of their choice.

Specifically, the measure, written by Mikulski and Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., would:

•Call for states to conduct background checks of employees, including checking state criminal and sex-offender registries and state-based abuse and neglect registries. Right now, just 12 states require comprehensive background checks.

•Require states to set aside more money to boost program quality—through efforts including beefing up staff training and giving parents more "consumer information" to help them compare different providers. Right now, states have to withhold 4 percent of their funds to bolster quality, but that would gradually increase to 10 percent by 2018.

•Ensure that program staff are trained in basic safety measures, like CPR.

•Call for states to check to see if parents are eligible for the grants no more than once a year. That will help ensure continuity of child-care, in the event a parent changes jobs or gets a raise.

Many of those ideas are also reflected in the regulations proposed by the administration for the CCDBG program. Way more information in this story and in this awesome blog post by the New America Foundation.

So what's in store next for CCDBG? It's unclear when this measure will go to the floor of the Senate—the fall schedule is crowded. But Harkin, Burr, Mikulski, and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. , the top Republican on the committee, had a quick little confab after the markup on future action. The upshot? The GOP lawmakers and the Democrats agreed to go to their leadership and see if they could "hot-line" this bill, Harkin said in an interview.

The House education committee has yet to tackle this reauthorization—and the renewal isn't on the top of the panel's to do list—they are instead moving on education research legislation and a bill to renew carer and technical education programs.

And this likely isn't going to be the last early childhood education bill on the Senate's agenda this year. Harkin and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., have said they would like to advance a bill based on President Barack Obama's plan to offer preschool education to more low-income four years olds. So why wasn't that bill attached to the CCDBG reauthorization? That would have killed all the bipartisan love in a hurry, Republicans say.

Harkin said he's hoping to introduce the early child care education bill "soon"—he's currently shopping for a Republican co-sponsor, he told me.

What about the big bill everyone in K-12 land is waiting with baited breath for: ESEA? Harkin told me he's still hoping to bring it up this year, but acknowledged that the schedule is crowded.

I asked if the bipartisan bills the committee has approved—today's CCDBG bill and the Workforce Investment Act—are more likely to come to the floor than ESEA because of they've got support on both sides of the aisle. "Probably so," Harkin told me.

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