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Day-Care Debate Opens With, Senate Bill, Bush Plan

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Washington--Separate child-care proposals approved by a Senate panel and unveiled by President Bush last week have set the stage for an intensifed Congressional debate on how the federal government should subsidize child care for low-income families.

By a 10-to-5 vote, the Senate Labor and Human Resources panel approved a revised version of the "act for better child-care services," which was first introduced in the previous Congress.

The measure, S 5, would authorize $2.6 billion to subsidize child care for low-income families, increase the supply of providers and improve their training, and set minimum quality and safety standards.

The panel also appeared to make progress toward clearing a major hurdle that had thwarted the a.b.c. bill in the 100th Congress. Members unanimously approved new guidelines governing federal aid to church-based day-care centers.

The language has the backing of the National Education Association, the National pta, and other education groups that strongly opposed the bill's church-state language last year.

Other major issues remain to be resolved, however. Republican members of the committee expressed opposition to federal child-care standards and signaled their support for the child-care approach offered by Mr. Bush.

The proposal forwarded to the Congress last week mirrors one Mr. Bush outlined during his Presidential campaign. It would offer low-in4come families a refundable tax credit of up to $1,000 for children under age 4, make the existing dependent-care credit refundable, and increase funding for the Head Start program by $250 million.

Under a refundable tax credit, families with no tax liability receive their credit in the form of a direct payment from the federal government.

Church-State Compromise

The amendment offered by Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chief sponsor of the legislation, would retain its ban on the use of funds for sectarian purposes and its coverage by federal civil-rights laws.

But it would add a provision prohibiting day-care providers who receive 80 percent or more of their operating budgets from public sources from engaging in religion-based discrimination in admissions and hiring.

The "precedent and rationale" for the amendment comes from the Head Start statute, Mr. Dodd explained.

Day-care providers receiving a lesser share of public funds would be barred from discrimination in hiring "if a prospective employee's primary responsibilities involve direct contact with children."

If two or more candidates qualify for such a job, however, the measure would permit providers to favor the one "who already participates in other activities at the institution on a regular basis."

For child-care slots not funded directly with a.b.c. funds, Mr. Dodd's language also would allow providers to select children "based on their own or their families' participation" in the institution's activities.

Senator Dodd said the amendment is backed by a "broad mainstream" of religious, education, and civil-liberties groups, "all of whom have decided that the time is now to put minor differences aside and to move forward together on behalf of America's children."

'Blanket Discrimination' Barred

Maribeth Oakes, a policy analyst for the National pta, called the language a "step in the right direction," because it would bar "blanket discrimination" in day-care admissions and employment.

Michael B. Edwards, director of Congressional relations for the n.e.a., also said the amendment addresses concerns about the church-state issue that "precluded our support" in the last Congress.

"We felt it was absolutely essential that it be corrected before the Congress could move forward. We believe we're at that point," he said.

But while the nea has agreed not to oppose the new church-state language in the Senate bill, it would "prefer" other approaches, said Isabelle Garcia, a legislative specialist for the union.

Ms. Garcia cited H R 3, a bill introduced by Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, Democrat of California, that would expand Head Start, fund school-based child-care programs, and establish an a.b.c.-like program for children under age 3.

Limiting the use of child-care "certificates"--one of the funding mechanisms authorized under the abc measure--to children of that age could alleviate the concerns of some education advocates, who fear that endorsing that approach for older children could pave the way for vouchers in schools.

The Senate committee adopted an amendment offered by its chairman, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to require parents and providers who wish to use child-care certificates in states that offer them to "sign a written agreement with the lead state agency."

The provision would "give states some control" over the process, Ms. Oakes observed, by helping them to "track the flow of dollars" used for certificates.

Bush's Tax Credit

Mr. Bush stressed last week that channeling aid directly to parents is a key goal of his child-care proposal, the "working family child care assistance act."

"At the center of my plan is parental choice," he said in a statement. "Federal policy should increase, not decrease, the range of choices available to parents."

The plan is based on the principle that "federal policy should not discriminate against families in which one parent works at home to care for their children" and would be focused on those "most in need," he said.

The tax credit would equal 14 percent of earnings, up to the maximum credit of $1,000. Taxpayers with incomes of between $8,000 to $13,000 in 1990 would receive reduced amounts of credit. By 1994, the phase-out of credits would apply to incomes of between $15,000 and $20,000.

Initially, some 2.5 million families would be eligible for the credit. When the plan was fully implemented, about 3.5 million would qualify.

The Administration estimates that implementing the new credit and making the current dependent-care credit refundable would cost $187 million in 1990. The cost would increase to $2.5 billion by 1993.

Federal Standards Opposed

Mr. Bush reiterated his position that the federal government "should not become involved" in child-care licensing, which he said local governments are "perfectly capable" of addressing.

"Federal financial support should not be made contingent upon state licensing decisions," he added.

Some Republican members of the Labor Committee voiced a similar view during markup of the a.b.c. bill.

"It is not clear to me ... that state and local standards have fallen short" in safeguarding children in day care, said Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

The panel's ranking Republican, Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, urged his party colleagues to vote to send the measure to the full Senate. But he reserved the right to offer a floor amendment favoring state and local child-care standards.

He also cited a recent letter to the panel from the National Governors' Association expressing opposition to federal standards.

But the committee rejected, by a vote of 10 to 6, a move by Senator Daniel R. Coats of Indiana to set "model" rather than mandatory federal standards for states to follow.

And Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Hatch turned down some Republicans' pleas to postpone the markup until the Bush Administration's proposal could be studied.

Mr. Bush's plan "doesn't negate the necessity of our work" in passing a child-care bill this session, said Mr. Hatch. "Whether or not this is the final bill, it is a very good bill that has to be considered by the U.S. Senate."

Mr. Hatch and other members suggested that a tax-credit component along the lines Mr. Bush has proposed could be incorporated into the a.b.c. bill. They noted, however, that any tax measure would first have to be approved by the Senate Finance Committee.

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