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Senate Committee Examines Child Care

With Congress preparing to renew the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) this year, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a March 15 hearing to examine federal child care programs. The House held a similar hearing on February 27 (see The Source, 3/1/02).

“About 14 million children under the age of 6 are in some type of child care arrangement every day,” stated Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), who chaired the hearing. Yet, “the cost of care averages between $4,000 and $10,000 a year, more than the cost of tuition at any state university,” he said, and added, “Far too many of America’s parents are left with far too little choice.” He emphasized the importance of providing quality child care programs, “sufficient funding for child care,” and “strengthening the child care workforce.” Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) agreed and said that she would support efforts “to make more quality child care available and to increase federal child care funding.” She pointed out that, “Any parent will tell you, quality child care is hard to find and even mediocre care is often out of reach of the family’s pocketbook.” According to studies, she said, “the biggest barrier most families face in both getting a job and keeping a job is affordable, reliable child care.”

The committee heard testimony from two panels of witnesses, most of whom stressed the importance of early childhood experiences and education as a predictor of later success or failure in school and in life. A majority of the witnesses called for increased funding for federal child care programs, better training and salaries for child care teachers, and more emphasis on safety standards for day care centers.

Helen Blank of the Children’s Defense Fund called quality child care the most important issue in the reauthorization of welfare reform. She painted a bleak picture of how states are grappling with providing child care services in the current economy. “As of January 2002, 45 states and the District of Columbia reported revenues below forecasted levels, and nineteen states responded to the economic crisis with cuts to programs for low-income families,” she said.

“Overall, employment among low-income single mothers with young children grew from 44 percent in 1996 to 55 percent in 1999,” she continued. “These employment gains can only be sustained if families have access to dependable child care,” she added.

Ms. Blank pointed out that the CCDBG requires states to set aside 4 percent of the funds “on quality efforts.” However, she said, “a 4 percent set-aside is not nearly enough considering the numerous components that need to be in place for children to receive the quality of care they need, including well-trained and well-compensated staff, low child-staff ratios, safe, roomy facilities designed to meet the needs of young children, basic equipment such as books and toys, regular monitoring and inspection of providers, and resource and referral programs to help families find care and support providers.”

In the process of reauthorizing the CCDBG, “you have an opportunity to help, not only to provide more money, but to put aside more money for quality,” she told the committee. “It’s also the time to address teacher compensation,” she added.

Elaine Zimmerman of the Connecticut Commission on Children compared quality early child care for families to a loose log on the trail, “it can trip up what is just a basic foothold to us: health, curiosity, a place of safety, readiness for school and unexpectedly, equity.” She continued, “The lack of access to quality early care widens the achievement gap for those who are poor and minority before they open the kindergarten door of the schoolhouse.”

Ms. Zimmerman told the committee that an investment in quality child care programs “returns the dollars spent.” It is “5.5 times more expensive later on to teach children who did not have quality early child care,” she said, and added, “We now know that many states are building prisons based on third-grade literacy rates.”

Sharing details of the child care programs in Connecticut, she said, “We stopped the minority achievement gap with 2 years of early child care.” She added, “With 2 years of child care, we broke the racial divide, and the dollars came from the CCDBG funds.”

Kathy Thornberg of the National Association for the Education of Young Children likened “the child care workforce situation to a bucket with a gaping hole.” She described how child care teachers who have a college degree enter the field but “have no real incentives to stay in their programs.” A child care teacher with a bachelor’s degree “can, and often does, move to the public school system to teach kindergarten for double the pay,” she said, and urged the committee to “make a significant investment in CCDBG now.”

Travis Hardmon of the National Child Day Care Association agreed. “When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, one message remains clear—if we are to address our infrastructure needs, expand services and improve quality for children from birth through school age, substantial increased funding is necessary,” he said.

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