House should vote to reauthorize child care law

Last month, members of a House subcommittee convened for a hearing on the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) program. It’s about time. The program, which spends more than $5 billion of federal money annually to help low-income parents afford child care, has been quietly passing out subsidies for years, with Congress paying it little attention. In fact, the law was last reauthorized 18 years and three presidents ago, despite nearly two decades of legislative ping-ponging since then between the program’s bipartisan champions on Capitol Hill.

This year could be different. A bipartisan group of senators has finally produced a comprehensive bill that updates the law. In the words of co-sponsor Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), it took “years of negotiations, meetings with hundreds of interested stakeholders, and honest conversations with my colleagues in the Senate.” They even managed to wrangle a staggering majority of senators (96 of them) to approve the bill last month.

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But despite all that work, reauthorization is hardly a done deal. The House Education and the Workforce Committee is next in line. Last month’s hearing is the only indication so far that House leadership is considering action.

If they don’t, they’re missing an opportunity to ensure more children are receiving high-quality care in safer settings--and to help more parents be able to work. So here are four reasons the House should work with the Senate to pass a CCDBG reauthorization bill.

1. Working Parents Need Child Care: Child care is unaffordable for most everyone--but it’s prohibitively expensive for the low-income parents who need access to care to be able to work. It can cost more than a year of tuition and fees at a public four-year college, according to a 2013 report from Child Care Aware® of America. CCDBG is designed to get parents back in the workplace. It was re-established as part of the welfare reform package Congress passed in 1996, based on work, not welfare, status. And its focus hasn’t changed: Fully 93 percent of families using child care subsidies today do so because they are either in education and training programs or employed. Without the support of CCDBG vouchers, the economic productivity of the nearly 904,000 families served by the program would be lost.

2. Parental Choice Is Central to the Child Care Program: Few educational programs rely so heavily on community-based organizations as the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. Currently, more than one in four children are served in child care run out of the provider’s home, and the remaining 68 percent are in (overwhelmingly private) center-based care settings. Parents have wide latitude in choosing a provider with whom they’re comfortable -- and in fact, the program is specifically designed to support exactly that freedom.

3. States Can Personalize Their Programs: The federal child care program provides funds to states as a block grant -- which allows states to identify their own needs and, in large part, determine how to use the federal dollars. States even chip in some of their own dollars--an additional $2.2 billion over the federal $5.2 billion spent in fiscal year 2012--to access the full amount of federal dollars.

4. If Congress Doesn’t Update the Law, the Administration Will: The Department of Health and Human Services last year released for public comment a first draft of its proposed regulations for CCDBG. Though the regulatory rewrite looks similar to the Senate version of the bill, a statutory overhaul would put the lawmaking back in the hands of elected officials. 

And voting on the bill could mean a little good publicity. Just eight months before the November midterm elections, lawmakers’ approval rating is stuck at a dismal 15 percent, and media stories continue to award the current Congress the dubious honor of the least productive in history. But the Senate’s collegial debate and speedy vote on CCDBG reauthorization sparked news stories extolling the chamber’s bipartisan compromises. And given the program’s status as a work support, not strictly an education one, there’s plenty of red meat for Republicans and Democrats alike. A bill signing for the Child Care and Development Block Grant might be just the trick to revive the House’s standing with the American public.

McCann is a policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program.