Today the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee on Children and Families held the third in a series of hearings in regards to reauthorizing the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). CCDBG is our nation’s primary funding stream for child care assistance for low-income families. At today’s hearing the Committee explored improving the quality of child care without sacrificing access to the program. The first hearing had focused on the federal return on investment from child care and its benefits to society and the child. The last hearing looked at improving the health, safety and quality of child care services. As with all policy discussions of late, the overriding focus on fiscal restraint is limiting our support for what we know works. CCDBG, in particular, has not been reauthorized since 1996, so it is behind the times in both our knowledge of brain development and even current child care practices.
Chairwoman Barbara Mikuslki (D-MD) challenged the legislators, administrators and advocates alike to rethink our approach to provide low to no cost quality measures in such a way that ensures its endurance when access is expanded. Consistent themes from the Senators and panelists reiterated child care as common sense resource that can provide both early learning opportunities for children and a work support for their parents. Mikulski revealed her passion by asserting our moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable. She further gave great weight to the testimony of Susana Coro, a parent making good use of the child care subsidy and who called for putting children first.
While CCDBG remains authorized based on old knowledge of over a decade and a half ago, the Executive Director from CWLA member agency Children’s Home, Phil Accord, pointed out the sad fact that short of federal recognition of child care as a school and life readiness resource for children, the subsidy is no longer a work support as 1996 welfare reform intended. Insufficient federal funding has led Tennessee to limit their share of the child care subsidy to TANF recipients and Children’s Home is forced to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide quality child care for working families on a sliding scale fee. Joining Accord on the panels were Linda Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary and Inter-Departmental Liaison for Early Childhood Development at the Administration on Children and Families; Rolf Grafwallner, Assistant State Superintendent of Early Childhood Development in Maryland; and Janet Singerman, President of Child Care Resources, Inc. in North Carolina, in addition to Coro who spoke from the parents’ perspective.
The Committee members engaged with questions and legislative proposals alike. They all agreed that waiting lists for productive citizens who need child care are unacceptable and that federal dollars must translate to quality services befitting tax payer investment. Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) discussed workforce background checks and his legislation, the Child Care Protection Act (S. 581) which would require them for all workers serving children covered by the federal CCDBG subsidy. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), a former preschool teacher, pointed to access barriers for homeless families and her legislation, just introduced this week, the Improving Access to Child Care for Homeless Families Act. This bill emphasizes their need for child care assistance and would create demonstration projects to uncover best practices. Senator Al Franken (D-MN) brought up the unique needs of infants and toddlers and his bill, S. 3436, which would amend CCDBG to authorize funding for states to systemically improve their best practices with the youngest children in need of child care.
Smith described the administrations work on CCDBG, including initiating reforms through the Early Learning Challenge Fund and a recent overhaul of the state plan and application process which now places greater priority on health, safety and program improvement. That process also requires quality goals and for the first time, progress reports on those goals. She pointed to partnerships with Head Start and other early learning programs; extended eligibility periods; increased transparency for parents and workforce training on basic first aid, CPR, and safe sleeping as practices prime for widespread implementation. Smith also pointed to evidence that developmental disparities start as early as 9 months, making it critically important that we figure out how to provide quality care to the 1.7 million low-income children currently receiving subsidies and the 5 out of 6 who are currently eligible but cannot access it.