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Senate Panel Kicks Off Deliberations On Revamped Child-Care Legislation

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Washington--A Senate subcommittee last week kicked off Congressional debate on one of this session's hottest issues with a hearing on a revamped version of the "act for better child care."

"This bipartisan package, the product of literally dozens of hours of negotiation, combines the best of the child-care legislation introduced in the [last] Congress," said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut.

The bill would authorize $2.5 billion to subsidize child care for low-income families and fund initiatives to increase the supply of providers and improve their training and salaries. It would also set minimum quality and safety standards.

Mr. Dodd and Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, announced that they were co-sponsoring the bill, which they introduced as S 5. Mr. Hatch is the ranking Republican on the Labor and Human Resources Committee, and Mr. Dodd is chairman of its subcommittee on children, family, drugs, and alcoholism, which held the hearing.

The senators announced that they also would co-sponsor a measure, proposed by Mr. Hatch last year, that would provide increased tax credits for families with children. They said they intend to combine the two proposals if and when the Senate Finance Committee approves the tax-credit measure, which has yet to be introduced.

A similar combined measure failed to pass last year amid pre-election partisan politics and conflicts between child-care supporters. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1988.)

"I am not co-sponsoring this bill because I think it is a perfect solution to the myriad of problems related to child care, but because I want to work in a bipartisan fashion to develop responsible legislation," Mr. Hatch said, noting that he still disagreed with some of the abc provisions.

Mr. Hatch also said his participation did not guarantee that other Republican leaders, particularly President Bush, would support the final product. He said he had "chatted" with Mr. Bush and his staff but ''can't say what their intentions are."

Issues 'Are the Same'

Some new wrinkles have been added to last year's proposal, including programs to aid businesses in setting up child-care programs, give grants and loans to new providers, and create state insurance pools for child-care providers. Another would allow aid to flow to adult relatives who care for eligible children if their homes meet state standards.

The changes are not likely to satisfy organizations--including the National Education Association, the National pta, and some religious groups--that originally backed the bill but pulled out of the coalition.

The groups argue that its provisions allowing aid to religious child-care providers could result in discrimination and unconstitutional public aid for religious activities. The bill also allows states to distribute aid in the form of vouchers, as well as in contracts with providers, and education groups fear this could pave the way for vouchers in school programs.

The dissidents were conspicuously absent from a list of supporters that was passed out last week by the abc Coalition, which includes the American Federation of Teachers.

"The issues are the same," said Maribeth Oakes, a policy analyst for the National pta.

Varied Plans Predicted

Michael B. Edwards, manager of Congressional relations for the nea, agreed, but expressed hope that they could be resolved.

"It's fairly clear that this year--unlike last year, when one proposal was 'take it or leave it'--there will be a variety of approaches and Congress will strive to put together the best parts of each of them," he said.

Mr. Edwards, Ms. Oakes, and Bruce Hunter, governmental-relations manager for the American Association of School Administrators, said they favor HR 3, the child-care proposal introduced last month by Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

The California Democrat's bill would expand Head Start to include child care for both eligible children and children from families with8slightly more income; fund school-based programs that could include before- and after-school care for children of school age and younger; and establish an abc-like program for children under age 3.

The education advocates noted that HR 3 would require adherence to Head Start anti-discrimination rules that cover religious discrimination. And they said limiting the abc program to very young children lessened their concerns about vouchers and aid to religious organizations.

They also applauded the specific inclusion of schools and a provision requiring full funding of Head Start before the new programs could receive appropriations.

The advocates also supported "Smart Start," which Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, reintroduced last week as S 123. The bill would fund educational programs that would be available to all 4-year-olds on a sliding-fee basis, with poor families paying nothing.

Aides said Mr. Kennedy, chairman of the full Labor and Human Resources Committee, planned to attach Smart Start to the abc bill.

Helen Blank, director of child care for the Children's Defense Fund, a leader of the abc Coalition, said her organization was "open to" Smart Start and some proposals in HR 3, but would stick with the abc bill.

"This is the bill we've worked on and it addresses individual communities' needs," Ms. Blank said, while "the Hawkins approach means more decisionmaking at the federal level."

Most witnesses at last week's hearing supported the abc bill, but others opposed setting federal standards for child care at all. That view drew the comment from Mr. Dodd that it would be no different than setting minimum standards for the safety of drinking water.

Three parents of children who were killed or injured while in child-care facilities made that argument more dramatically, contending that the tragedies could have been prevented if providers were screened and required to complete adequate training.

Margaret A. Lucas, chief of child-development services for the U.S. Army, said the Army's success in setting uniform standards for child-care facilities used by military families dispels "the myth that use of standards automatically means increased costs and layers of bureaucracy."

But Mr. Hatch reiterated his opposition to federal child-care standards, arguing that parents should be the arbiters of quality and that state regulation would be preferable to blanket federal rules.

That position, which has been echoed by many Republicans, was also supported at the hearing by Senator Daniel Coats of Indiana, the new ranking Republican on Mr. Dodd's subcommittee; Scott McCallum, the Republican lieutenant governor of Wisconsin; and former Undersecretary of Education Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank.

Mr. Bauer contended that federal standards would increase the cost of child care and that no standards could insure against abuse. He backed a tax credit for all parents, arguing that it is the only approach that does not penalize parents who stay home with their children.

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