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Child-Care Issues Move Into Political Spotlight

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Washington--Governors, Congressmen, groups ranging from the National Education Association to the Eagle Forum, and President Reagan all staked out positions last week on what is rapidly becoming one of the hottest election-year issues: child care.

In the House and Senate, sponsors of comprehensive child-care and early-childhood-education bills launched hearings to garner support for their proposals.

The National Governors' Association, at their winter meeting here, adopted a policy statement stressing the need for high-quality child care and detailing the roles that the federal and state governments should play in providing it.

Several governors also appeared at a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing to showcase child-care initiatives from their states and to lend support for a preschool bill sponsored by Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts.

In an address to the governors, however, President Reagan urged caution in involving the federal government too deeply in child care, which he said could have negative ramifications for states and families.

"Many of these efforts are timely and good," said Mr. Reagan. "But in this area, more than any other, government should tread carefully."

Bill Gains Momentum

While the President urged restraint in the "push for child care," however, momentum was building on Capitol Hill for the "act for better child care," a $2.5-billion measure introduced last year by Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut.

At a House Human Resources Subcommittee hearing last week, about two dozen witnesses testified in support of the bill, HR 3660, which would offer child-care assistance and support services for working parents and provide funds to train and recruit day-care providers.

The bill also would require states to review and upgrade licensing standards and would establish a national advisory panel to set minimum federal standards.

The so-called "a.b.c." bill is backed by an alliance of more than 100 social-service and business organizations and about a third of the members of the Congress. (See Education Week, Nov. 25, 1987.)

Participants at the hearing cited demographic data that they said documented the need for expanded child care.

Mr. Kildee, chairman of the House panel, noted that the number of working women has nearly doubled in the last two decades. And the proportion with children under 6, which now makes up more than half of all working women, will reach two-thirds by 1995, he said.

"An expanded child-care system is needed to ensure that these children have a safe place to stay during the hours their parents are working," Mr. Kildee said.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, said safety hazards faced by thousands of children left unsupervised or in unregulated care underscore the need for the bill.

Several witnesses also cited data from the Perry Preschool Project in Ypsilanti, Mich., that they said demonstrated that high-quality early-childhood programs can yield a high rate of return in staving off later social-service costs.

"From the standoint of national productivity," said Thomas R. Donahoe, secretary-treasurer of the a.f.l.-c.i.o., high-quality child care "could do more" than many of the current efforts to improve the nation's competitiveness.

Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the n.e.a., added that provisions calling for training, licensing, and appropriate developmental programs "are essential if a key objective of making child care widely available is to enhance the national drive for excellence in education."

'Federal Babysitting Plan'

At a news conference staged in an adjoining room, however, a coalition of conservative groups, known as Choice for Families with Children, denounced the bill as anti-family.

In a statement saying day care is "detrimental to babies," Phyllis Schlafly, president of the Eagle Forum, called the bill a "federal babysitting plan" that would discriminate against mothers who cared for their own children or opted for unlicensed care.

Ms. Schlafly and other members of the coalition said the best way to address the child-care crisis would be to offer more tax relief for families with children, regardless of whether their mothers work.

Michael Schwartz, family-policy analyst for Coalitions of America, an umbrella group of conservative organizations, also charged that the bill's prohibition against funding sectarian activities would adversely affect church-run day care centers, a common child-care option for poor families.

Coalition members also charged that the bill would spawn an unwarranted federal bureaucracy and overregulate day-care arrange4ments in private homes.

The child-care component in a welfare-reform proposal introduced by Republican leaders in the House and Senate and supported by Presi8dent Reagan would leave day-care regulation to the states.

Kennedy Bill Hearing

While child-care advocates focused on the a.b.c. bill in the House, Senator Kennedy invited several governors to speak on behalf of his "Smart Start" proposal at a Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee hearing.

The proposal, which Mr. Kennedy is expected to introduce this month, aims to make high-quality early-childhood-education programs available to all 4-year-olds.

The bill would provide states up to $1 billion in matching grants to set up or expand early-childhood programs operated by social-services agencies or schools.

To qualify for federal funds, states would have to run "developmentally appropriate" programs that operated for the full work-day and the full year, with adult-child ratios of no more than 10 to 1.

Staff members would have to be trained in early-childhood education and development. The bill also calls for parental involvement and coordination among schools and other social-services agencies.

Governors Pledge Support

Several governors applauded the measure at last week's hearing, saying it would contribute to children's successful schooling and allow states to supplement programs that now fall far short of need.

Gov. Rudy Perpich of Minnesota, who chairs the n.g.a.'s committee on dropouts, noted that 30 governors cited child-care or preschool initiatives in their state-of-the-state messages this year.

"We are eager to have a universal pre-kindergarten program and would welcome very much the idea of federal assistance in doing it," added Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York.

The financing plan "would allow states like South Carolina to serve many more children and serve them more adequately," said former Gov. Richard W. Riley.

Gov. Thomas H. Kean of New Jersey also praised the measure but stressed that it should build on existing programs such as Head Start, give states flexibilty to design their own programs, and "insist on accountability."

A policy position approved by the governors at last week's n.g.a. meeting states that the main responsibility for child care should rest with states, while the federal government should provide extra supportin reaching "at risk" children and help states improve the quality and supply of care for all families.

Help on Standards

The statement says the federal government should work with states to develop model child-care standards and should offer incentives or grants to help states meet them. It also calls for "innovative public/private partnerships" and federal tax incentives as a spur to business involvement in child care.

Although Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, questioned whether the nation could afford Mr. Kennedy's proposal in light of the federal deficit, former Governor Riley said the nation could not afford to shortchange young children.

"I don't think we can blame the deficit on the 4-year-olds of this country," he said.

Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, said he was concerned about the level of federal regulation in the Kennedy bill, but added that he was confident that a child-care measure would pass in the Congress this year.

Child-care advocates say the support of conservatives such as Mr. Hatch, who introduced his own child-care bill last year, bodes well for passage of a comprehensive measure.

Observers say there is little chance that more than one measure on the scale of the a.b.c. and Kennedy bills will be enacted in this Congressional session.

But advocates see the measures as complementary, rather than competing, according to Ms. Edelman.

"This year, our strong priority is a.b.c.," she said, "but we're glad to have this abundance" of proposals with different emphases.

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