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Child Care Bill Advances, But Its Fate Is Unclear

The Senate voted yesterday to approve (96-2) a reauthorization bill for the federal child care program, the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). If the bill passes the House and is signed into law by the president, it will be the first time the law has received a facelift since 1996--nearly two decades. The legislation would bring federal requirements for states and child care providers in line with recent research about the importance of children’s academic and social-emotional development in the early years, and update and improve the law’s safety and health requirements.

While there were a few modest changes and a few amendments tacked on, the bill largely looks as it did when it was introduced in the Senate last summer. The bill would seek to improve the quality of child care settings, and to empower parents to find the best, highest-quality options for their children. To do that, states will have to collect data and publish reports that help parents understand their child care options and the availability of other services, like developmental screenings.

Under the current CCDBG law, states are required to reserve at least 4 percent of their funds for improving the quality of child care services, the Senate bill would require that they reserve at least 10 percent (phased in over the first four years of enactment). That provision catches federal law up to states’ current practices--nationally, states set aside about 12 percent of funds in fiscal year 2012 for quality activities. Quality funds, under the Senate bill, could be used for a wide range of activities, from training and professional development to building out the state’s quality rating and improvement system.

Under the CCDBG reauthorization bill, states would be expected to work with other early educational programs to more effectively and efficiently provide services to families -- an important move, given the intersections of mission, eligibility, regulations, and practice across Head Start, early learning, special education, and child care, particularly for young children. To simplify that process (and in a departure from the bill that was initially introduced), states would be eligible to apply for waivers from certain federal requirements if it would improve the services delivered to young kids.

This could be a promising move for states’ to become “laboratories of innovation.” We know that overlapping regulations and blended funding streams create challenges for states and providers, but given that CCDBG is nearly two decades out of date, we don’t have much experience in designing federal policies that streamline some of those regulations. Note, however, that the Department of Health and Human Services would have responsibility for ensuring the waivers are used well--and we would hope to see substantive oversight from HHS as states try to ease the burden of implementing federal programs.

Because CCDBG was designed as a work program, the current rules mean that parents must be working or training for work to be eligible for the subsidies. New protections in the Senate bill would mean that the children of parents who are laid off, leave a training program, or otherwise become ineligible for the federal child care subsidies wouldn’t immediately lose access to care. Instead, states would be required to redetermine families’ eligibility no more than once every 12 months. Currently, states set their own timelines for redetermination. And, under a new provision, even if families are determined to be ineligible, states would have to continue providing them with child care subsidies for at least three months. Continuity of care has been shown to be important to kids’ development, so the move to extend the redetermination period brings policy in line with that research.

The bill would also seek to lift health and safety standards, a long-time project of Sen. Burr (R-NC), one of the bill’s cosponsors. It would require states to conduct criminal background checks and forbid providers from hiring child care employees who lie in their criminal background checks, are registered sex offenders, or have been convicted of certain crimes. The requirement would apply to all licensed child care -- including home-based care. That may seem like a no-brainer, but to date, only 9 states require background checks for family child care, so it may be a bigger lift for states than many of the other, already-implemented practices included in the bill. States could still exempt some child care providers from licensing, but only after explaining to the Department of Health and Human Services why the exemption isn’t putting the health, safety, or development of children in those settings at risk.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) submitted an amendment that threw a curveball, too: a ‘Sense of the Senate’ resolution suggesting the president should submit “a comprehensive plan to significantly reduce child poverty in the United States” by 2019. ‘Sense of Congress’ resolutions aren’t legally binding and don’t carry weight (and  nor, for that matter, do most of the plans that the president submits to Congress)--but they typically require near-unanimous support, and in this case, was adopted by a voice vote.

The fate of the bill now is unclear. It’s headed to the House of Representatives -- and that chamber has shown, if anything, even less interest in CCDBG over the last few years. Though the legislation presents a unique opportunity for Republicans to simultaneously embrace early education and working parents (more than 1.5 million children and 900,000 families benefit from the law each year), a vote from the full House might be unlikely, particularly in an election year. There’s no GOP champion of the bill in the House--at least not yet. Rep. John Kline (R-MN), chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, did announce yesterday, however, that his committee would hold a hearing on the legislation on March 25.  So perhaps the House does recognize CCDBG as an opportunity too.

Check back withEdCentralin the coming weeks for more on whether this two-decades-old legislation will finally receive an official update."