Earlier this month, a bill that would renew the long outdated Child Care and Development Block Grant program sailed through the U.S. Senate, with overwhelming bipartisan support and love, and angels singing overhead.
Senators, who are normally at each others' throats, gave giddy floor speeches about how a collaborative process resulted in a fantastic bill that will help little kids by making sure that the people taking care of them wash their hands and don't have criminal backgrounds, among other new requirements. More here.
Now the big question is: Can the equally rancorous U.S. House of Representatives keep the bipartisan happiness train running and actually get the child-care grant bill over the finish line this year?
The answer, after the first House hearing on education since passage of the CCDBG bill? Probably. But don't count on a ton of new money for the program, which was first started in the 1990s to help low-income parents cover the cost of child care and after-school programs.
Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who oversees the subcommittee that deals with K-12 policy, kicked off the House education committee's first hearing on the program's reauthorization by saying nice things about the Senate legislation, which has already gotten praise from Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the full education panel. Rokita said the bill presents "a solid foundation for reform."
And he specifically singled out provisions that would bolster training child-care providers, and require annual inspections of child-care facilities. Currently about half of the states do on-site inspections of home-based child-care providers. Rokita is also a fan of the bill's push to give parents more and easier-to-understand information, so that they can more easily compare providers. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the top Democrat on the panel, also had high praise for the Senate bill, which would reauthorize the program for the first time since 1996. Scott said he is "eager for bipartisan collaboration" on CCDBG.
Rokita also sounded a word of caution, saying he wants to ensure that any "new requirements will help—not hinder—states in meeting the needs of children and their families." He'd also like to find ways to coordinate among the dozens of early-childhood programs across the federal government. (That's something Kline has said he's interested in, too.)
For their part, witnesses highlighted the need for changes that would be ushered in by the Senate bill. For example, Paula Koos, the executive director of the Oklahoma Child Care Resource & Referral Association, cited the disparity in current child-care and training requirements among states, something the Senate bill aims to fix by setting new minimum health and safety standards.
"I understand and support the need for state flexibility," she said in testimony. "At the same time, there needs to be some minimum core health and safety protections for all children in child care in our nation."
Olivia Golden, the executive director of the Center for Law and Social Policy, or CLASP, echoed that sentiment. "CCDBG would be strengthened by increasing its focus on health and safety and quality and allowing parents easier and more-sustained access to assistance," she said. The Senate bill would also allow parents to remain eligible for the child-care grants for a full year to ensure continuity of care. Right now, parents must reapply every three to seven months, on average.
Golden said that the new requirements must also be accompanied by more funding, a point advocates made during Senate consideration of the CCDBG bill. The Senate-passed legislation doesn't include any new resources for the program. In fact, for political reasons, it's deliberately vague on future spending levels.
But, toward the end of the hearing, Rokita made it clear he doesn't want to see significant new money poured into early-childhood education.
"If you all haven't heard, we're broke, Dr. Golden," he said. If child-care funding is the priority, for spending, he asked, "what's not so much the priority anymore?"