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Early-Childhood Debates Highlighted at E.D. Forum

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Washington--An Education Department symposium designed to help propel early-childhood professionals and policymakers toward a unified strategy may have done more to illuminate the obstacles to that goal.

Despite general agreement on the need for federal intervention to improve the quality and supply of child care, speakers disagreed over the severity of the problem and how to resolve it.

Undersecretary of Education Linus Wright said the meeting's goal was to help the department "take a position and work with the President and Congress in trying to find a resolution" to problems facing children and families.

The two-day event, which cost $150,000, was funded under a part of the department's Chapter 2 appropriation earmarked for early-childhood programs by Senator Lawton Chiles, Democrat of Florida.

It drew about 400 child-care practitioners, teachers, school and day-care center administrators, legislative aides, researchers, policy analysts, and foundation personnel.

"We have taken particular pains to invite everyone on every side of this issue," Mr. Wright said. "We didn't want it to be a Department of Education issue, a Republican or Democratic issue, or a liberal or conservative issue."

But he noted that when it failed to enact child-care legislation, "the 100th Congress ran into the same difficulty that we may run into here, and that's the complexity" of the issue.

Debate among conference panelists highlighted several issues that thwarted child-care legislation in the 100th Congress and are likely to confront the next Congress.

Mr. Wright and Gov. Michael N. Castle of Delaware both called for flexible approaches that allow states to build early-childhood programs tailored to their needs.

But Robert Rector, a policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, questioned the need for more institutionalized child-care programs. He cited data showing that more than half of preschool children are cared for at home; that most mothers of young children would prefer to stay home if they could afford it; and that many do not regard day care favorably.

He also labeled as "absolute nonsense" the notion that it takes two working parents to support a standard of living comparable to what families could once afford with one wage earner. And he said that vacancy rates in commercial child-care centers show there is no "bottleneck" in supply.

Amanda Broun, an aide to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, cited statistics showing that many women with young children would work if they could find adequate child care. And Ellen Galinsky, president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, said surveys show that many working parents, as well as those on welfare, cite problems in arranging for child care and gaps in the quality of care due to low pay and high staff-turnover rates.

Speakers also clashed over the issue of federal day-care regulations. Mr. Rector and several Republican Congressional aides said standards proposed in the "act for better child-care services"--a $2.5 billion bill that died last session--could drive up day-care costs without necessarily improving quality.

But Damian Thorman, an aide to the bill's sponsor, Representative Dale Kildee, said the measure set "minimal" standards to ensure children's well-being and had "received a lot of support from state legislators."

Speakers also disagreed on how the federal government should fund child care, with some advocating tax credits for low-income parents regardless of whether they work and others favoring plans that include subsidies for child-care providers.

They also offered differing views on the Reagan Administration's record on children's programs. W. Norton Grubb, a professor of education at the University of California at Berkeley, said such programs had been harmed by "attacks on social spending" in the Reagan era. But Ronald Haskins, an aide to the House Ways and Means Committee, argued that Mr. Reagan had "slowed the growth of spending" while maintaining basic benefits.

Michael Hoon, an aide to Senator Malcolm Wallop, Republican of Wyoming, who serves on the Senate Finance Committee, noted that the Congress would "have to find a way to finance" even a modest bill in view of budget-deficit concerns.

The degree of consensus among participants on some points was obvious, however.

Mr. Rector's attempts to debunk what he called "myths" about the poor supply and quality of day care drew audible sighs from the audience, and a reference to a potential shortage of "female jobs" evoked hisses.

Several participants faulted the government for failing to view children's programs as a long-term investment. But many said they were encouraged by the department's leadership in hosting the gathering.

"One of the important things about this conference was that the medium was the message," Ms. Galinsky said.

It signaled, said Alan Ginsburg, director of planning and evaluation, that the department "recognizes that education doesn't start in 1st grade."

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