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Senate Passes Child-Care Development Bill, Sending it to President's Desk

The U.S. Senate passed the Child Care Development Block Grant bill Monday evening with overwhelming bipartisan support. The measure, which hasn't been updated since 1996, now moves to the White House for the president's signature.

Lawmakers praised the passage of the child-care law, which governs a $5 billion program that provides funding for states to help low-income families pay for child care while a parent works or is in an educational or job-training program.

"Today's Senate passage of this critical, bipartisan measure will strengthen quality and safety standards in child care settings while also ensuring that low-income and at-risk children and families have access to the affordable care they need," said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the education committee who is retiring at the end of this year.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the ranking member on the education panel who is expected to take the gavel in the upcoming Republican-controlled Congress, commended the bill for limiting the federal government's role.

"It recognizes that states actually have very good judgment themselves," he said. "What might work in Hawaii might not work in Tennessee or might not in Iowa, and different programs might work better in different jurisdictions--and that mothers, themselves, when they are choosing daycares, ought to be able to make that judgment."

Under the new law, the child-care block grant program will require states to conduct comprehensive background checks on child-care providers, something only about a dozen states call for now. It will also give parents more information about available child-care options, including faith-based and community-based providers, and allow parents to choose a program that best suits their family's needs.

In addition, the measure will require states to set aside a greater portion of their own funds for program improvement—10 percent, up from the current 4 percent. The additional money could be used for a range of activities, such as beefing up training for providers and making "consumer information" available to parents so they can compare different providers.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a main author of the bill, said in a speech on the Senate floor before the vote that child care costs $13,000 per year per child in her home state, and that the updated law will provide vouchers for approximately 19,000 Maryland families.

"It's expensive whether you're a two-parent household or a single-parent household," she said. "For those earning the minimum wage, it's out of reach."

The measure overcame one hurdle from Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., who had put a hold on the bill because he wanted the Senate to vote on his own very similar proposal instead. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., used a tactical procedure to bypass Toomey's hold. Other than that, the vote was noncontroversial and passed with bipartisan support, 88-1.

Early-education advocates applauded Congress for clearing a bill that they said was long overdue for an update.

"Importantly, under the new law, families will be able to utilize the program for a minimum of 12 months, promoting stability for both working parents and their children," said Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, touching on an additional provision included in the new law.

With the fiscal 2015 funding extension debate looming, Martin also noted that under the current funding levels, just one in six eligible children has access to care through the federal subsidy program.

The passage of the child-care bill could be good news for the future of an education research bill, an even-more-benign proposal that is currently stalled in the Senate. Back in September, the two chambers reached a bipartisan, bicameral deal on the Strengthening Education Through Research Act, which would reauthorize federal education research through the Institute of Education Sciences.

The education research bill, however, will be competing for limited floor space in the Senate where lawmakers are more focused on averting a government shutdown as the current federal funding stopgap measure expires Dec. 11, holding a vote on the Keystone pipeline, and responding to President Barack Obama's forthcoming immigration announcement.

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