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Child care policy shows promise for common ground

The recent reauthorization process for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) gives us hope that cooperation on legislation is possible in Congress.  On September 15 the House of Representative passed CCDBG reauthorization by voice vote.  Time ran out before it was able to pass the Senate in September, but on November 12 the Senate will take up the legislation and we expect it to pass overwhelmingly that week.

These votes are a culmination of several years of discussions among members of Congress in both chambers, among Democrats and Republicans, about how to better ensure that the 11 million children under age 5 in child care throughout America every week are in a setting that is both safe and promotes their healthy developments.  Something needed to be done.  The recent death of 62 children in child care in Virginia, including 45 in unlicensed care, underscores the need for action to improve the system.

What we are watching is a process which defies conventional wisdom in Washington.  There is so much written about Washington gridlock, polarization and stalemate these days.  Congress has shown little ability to find common ground across party lines on healthcare, immigration, taxes and a host of other issues.

Many look nostalgically toward the past, pointing to periods where leaders put ideological differences aside to work toward common objectives.  They look to the 1980¹s, 90¹s and, most recently, some point to the early 2000¹s, when bipartisan education and tax legislation was crafted and passed.  Those days, the pundits say, are long gone.  Nothing long term, far reaching and bipartisan is expected to pass now.

Yet, Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) have been working consistently, civilly and openly over the past several years to reauthorize CCDBG.  They held bipartisan hearings to gain a better understanding of both state policies and parent experiences with child care.  With the help of Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), they developed a bill which passed the Senate 96-2 (2 abstentions) last March.  Also in March, House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and Early Childhood Subcommittee Chairman Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) held a hearing where testimony was received about the need to improve the safety of child care and strengthen the child care workforce. This summer, House Education and the Workforce Committee members Kline, Rokita, George Miller (D-Calif.) and David Loebsack (D-Iowa) negotiated a bill based on the measure that passed the Senate in March.  Once they had a bipartisan agreement, they negotiated a final bill with Senate leadership, which passed the House on September 15 and should pass in the Senate in November with overwhelming support.

It¹s a good bill.  It promotes the health and safety of children in child care and requires state accountability for the expenditure of federal funds.  CCDBG allocates funds to states for child care ­ to help families afford the cost of child care and assist states in improving the quality of child care.  This bill is historic in its recognition that child care is not just a work support, but also an opportunity to ensure that children are in a setting that promotes their healthy development.

It is amazing in that this law was passed in 1996 and has not been reauthorized since.  During those years of relative bipartisanship in the early 2000¹s, Congress failed to pass a child care bill.

Now, during a time when there supposedly is no path to passage for anything substantive, a bipartisan, bicameral, group of leaders came together and reached an agreement on an issue that is critical for working families with children.

We who write this worked on Capitol Hill for members of differing parties during eras of deeper bipartisan collaboration and we agree that the past decade has been more polarized.  Yet, collaboration on child care gives us hope.

We know from our own experiences as parents, researchers and policy analysts who have followed this issue for years, how important child care is.  We also realize that for real change to happen in Washington, leaders must find common ground.

Child care, like many issues, could have remained polarized.  Liberals could have rejected any bill that did not provide substantial new funding to expand significantly the access and affordability of child care. Conservatives could have rejected any bill that sought to impact state flexibility or characterize child care as other than a work support for parents.

Yet all sides came together.  The bill Congress is passing is not seen as perfect by either side.  Yet, rather than rejecting the process and project all together, leaders found common ground for the good of the country on a significant domestic policy issue.

It shows that Congress can come together in a bipartisan manner that unites both the House and the Senate.  It provides a model and a promise for collaboration on other issues.

Gray is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. Reef is president of the Early Learning Policy Group, working in numerous states throughout the country to improve the quality of childcare and other early learning settings.

Tags Barbara Mikulski Lamar Alexander Richard Burr Tom Harkin

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