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Lingering Disputes Stall Consideration Of Child-Care Bill

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Washington--Despite broad-based public and professional support for federal child-care legislation, negotiations over key elements of a major child-care bill are delaying its consideration in the Senate.

Unresolved disputes over the federal role in subsidizing and regulating child care ultimately derailed the "act for better child-care services" last year. The new controversies--over some of the same issues--likewise have raised obstacles to rapid action in the 101st Congress.

Although sponsors had hoped to bring the bill to the floor early this month, they are now aiming to move the measure shortly after the Congress returns from its Memorial Day recess in early June.

One of the most contentious issues concerns the provision of aid to child-care centers run by religious institutions.

Although the measure now includes a prohibition against the use of funds for religious purposes or instruction, the U.S. Catholic Conference announced last week that it would seek an amendment allowing federal vouchers to be used for sectarian child care.

The move threatened to upset a compromise on church-state issues that had eased the bill's passage by a Senate panel.

Meanwhile, negotiations on another controversial issue--the federal role in mandating health, quality, and safety standards for child care--are underway between the bill's sponsors and the National Governors' Association.

The two parties have tentatively agreed on a substitute measure that would offer incentives for states to set their own standards within specified guidelines. But the bill could lose the n.g.a.'s endorsement if it retains a provision mandating the number of hours of training required for child-care workers.

Also unresolved is whether--and how--to incorporate into the bill a tax-credit measure along the lines proposed by President George Bush and other Republicans. Such a component has triggered discussion among Congressional tax panels and could raise new questions about the bill's pricetag.

Despite these lingering debates over critical elements of the bill, however, supporters remain optimistic that some agreement will emerge in this Congress.

"The a.b.c. has surmounted what had in the past seemed insurmountable hurdles," said Amy Tyler Wilkins, a program associate with the Children's Defense Fund, which played a lead role in crafting the legislation. "Support in both houses of Congress--and more importantly, among voters--is so huge that there is going to be enormous pressure to resolve these issues."

As passed by the Senate panel, the $2.6-billion measure would subsidize child care for moderate and low-income families, increase the supply of providers and improve their training, and set minimum quality and safety standards.

In view of estimates that a third of all child care is operated by religious groups, provisions governing church-based care are considered critical to the measure.

A clash between some education and child-advocacy groups over the extent to which the federal government should subsidize and regulate such care was among the factors that led to the a.b.c.'s downfall in the last Congress.

The National Education Association and other groups had argued that child-care certificates allowed under the bill could pave the way for a voucher system for K-12 education that could be used to subsidize parochial-school instruction.

They also feared that allowing churches to favor job candidates of their own faith would increase opportunities for religious indoctrination in child care.

In March, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee approved a version of the a.b.c. with new church-state language that won the backing of the n.e.a., the National p.t.a., and other groups that had objected to last year's measure.

The panel added language, modeled after the Head Start program, that would bar day-care providers who receive 80 percent or more of their funds from public sources from religion-based discrimination either in admissions or hiring.

The panel also laid out some hiring restrictions for providers receiving a lesser share of public funds and adopted an amendment that would require parents and providers who wish to use vouchers to sign a written agreement with the state.

Although the changes prompted the n.e.a. and other groups to withdraw their opposition, they are bracing for another showdown over the Catholic Conference's new proposal.

Senators Wendell H. Ford, Democrat of Kentucky, and David Durenberger, Republican of Minnesota, plan to sponsor the "parental choice" amendment, which would allow parents to use federally funded child-care certificates to purchase child care with a "religious orientation."

Carolyn C. Boos, an assistant to Mr. Durenberger, said the original bill "leaves uncertain the ability of a parent" to choose care operated not only in churches, but in homes where caregivers say prayers before meals or engage in other religious practices.

As the bill stands, said the Rev. Kenneth Doyle, the Catholic Conference's director of media relations, private homes with "trappings of religion--such as a cross or a Jewish menorah--could be disqualified as an ineligible setting for day care."

Restricting aid to care that is completely secular, he said, "would discriminate against parents of eligible children who elect child care in a religious setting" and undercut "much needed services now offered by many religious providers."

Critics contend, however, that the proposed amendment would not only undermine the a.b.c. bill--but could render it unconstitutional.

In a May 5 letter to Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, who chairs the Labor and Human Resources Committee, the Harvard University legal expert Lawrence H. Tribe said the proposal "would create a significant risk that the a.b.c. bill would be held unconstitutional."

Father Doyle said that "the principle of parental choice has already been established by the U.S. Supreme Court" in Mueller v. Allen, a 1983 ruling that upheld a Minnesota law allowing parents to take tax deductions for costs incurred in sending children to public or private schools.

"The certificate would act like a tax credit in that you are giving it to a broad array of people and giving them the choice to use the certificate in the care setting they choose," Ms. Boos added.

Mr. Tribe argued, however, that deductions offer an "indirect benefit" to religious schools, while a.b.c. funds would go directly from the government to the child-care provider who receives the certificate.

Michael Edwards, the n.e.a.'s director of Congressional relations, said last week that the amendment proposed by the Catholic Conference would "set a devastating precedent" for federal education programs. "It says we can take federal dollars and we can inculcate religious values."

He added that the proposal would "completely obliterate" what he termed a "carefully drafted compromise, supported by every major religious organization, that would have ensured a strict separation of church and state and nondiscrimination" in child-care settings.

Mr. Edwards said the Catholic Conference was one of several groups that pledged not only to back that compromise--but to refrain from seeking other changes in the bill's church-state language.

"We are tremendously disappointed in the Catholic Conference, which has decided not to honor this commitment," he said.

Father Doyle countered last week that the group had voiced concern "all along in the process" about ensuring parents' right to use certificates for religious child care.

He added that more detailed language included in the committee report accompanying the bill--and correspondence from members over the last year--had "made it evident to us that this is precisely the amendment that is needed to preserve the maximum eligibility of day-care slots."

Mr. Edwards maintained, however, that there was "nothing in the report language" that the Catholic Conference had not previously agreed to. He noted that amendments placing restrictions on the appearance of religious signs and symbols in child-care centers were removed from an earlier version of the bill at the group's request.

Their proposal, he argued, "would not only undermine all the agreements it has taken two and a half years to work out, but it could truly jeopardize passage of the legislation in the Senate."

But others said they did not believe the amendment would impede the bill's passage.

"This is not necessarily a partisan issue," said Ms. Boos. She added that Senator Durenberger was "finding support" for the proposed amendment "on both sides of the aisle and from various parts of the country."

A.b.c. backers remain optimistic that a compromise can be reached.

"We think the a.b.c. coalition is strong enough and support in the Senate and from leadership is strong enough that this issue can be satisfactorily resolved," said Jason Isaacson, press secretary for Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the chief Democratic sponsor of the bill in the Senate.

Congressional sources also noted that whatever language is adopted in the Senate is likely to be modified in the House, where Representative Augustus Hawkins of California is backing a child-care measure that would expand Head Start and school-based child-care programs and limit the use of child-care certificates to infants under age 3.

Another issue that has proved troublesome for the a.b.c. involves the establishment of a national commission to set federal standards for child-care centers.

Although Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah, has lent his support to the measure, conservative lawmakers generally have opposed federal regulation of the field.

Support from the nation's governors, observers say, could help bolster support for the bill.

Talks are underway between n.g.a. representatives and a.b.c. sponsors in an effort to fashion a compromise on the standards issue.

Wendy Adler, a senior staff assoel15lciate with the n.g.a., said that a tentative agreement under discussion would set model standards and establish a discretionary grant program to help states meet them.

"Our concern has always been that states and governors want to work on upgrading standards," Ms. Adler said, "but if they don't have adequate appropriations to do so, it becomes increasingly difficult."

Another concern, she said, was that the bill did not sufficiently recognize geographic variations in child care.

The compromise language would require states to put into place a standard for each category now listed in the bill. But it would allow them to set their own criteria for meeting those standards.

In addition to standards on child-staff ratios, group sizes, and caregiver qualifications, the agreement would address several new categories--including prevention and control of infectious disease, provision of services for children with special needs, and prevention of child abuse.

The proposal also would ease an a.b.c. requirement mandating yearly inspections for 20 percent of the private homes providing day care.

But Ms. Adler noted that no compromise had been struck so far on a provision to require 40 hours of training every two years for all child-care providers in a state, regardless of whether they receive a.b.c. funds.

While the governors "believe training is critical to quality child care," she said, they fear that such a stringent and costly requirement could discourage states from licensing additional centers and "put centers underground."

"We wouldn't give full support to the bill unless the training requirement is deleted," she said.

Another quandary facing a.b.c. backers is how to build in a tax-credit component, which many acknowledge is needed to win White House and Republican support.

President Bush unveiled a proposal in March that would offer low-income families a refundable tax credit of up to $1,000 for children under the age of 4. He also proposed expanding the Head Start program and making the existing dependent-care credit refundable.

While supporters say they would welcome a tax-credit measure as a complement to a.b.c., the mechanics of adding one could stall the bill.

Unless a tax provision originates in the House, that chamber has the power to stop action on tax-related legislation in the Senate.

For that reason, aides said, the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, is not inclined to support a tax measure submitted on the Senate floor. Mr. Bentsen would also prefer that his commmittee have the opportunity to consider such a bill before sending it to the floor, they said.

In spite of such obstacles, observers note that some factors that dogged the a.b.c. in the last Congress are no longer present. They include the "test of wills" between the 1988 Presidential contenders and signals from the Reagan Administration to "go slow" on child care.

Mr. Isaacson argued that "a greater recognition on the part of the Bush Administration that something has to be done in child care" would give the measure a "better shot" in Congress. But he added: "No one expected the a.b.c. bill to be a cakewalk."

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