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House Approves Grants, Loans, Standards for Child Care

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Washington--After a day of intense and sometimes-emotional debate, the House voted last week to approve a child-care package that would include child-care grants and tax credits, expand Head Start, and set model health and safety standards.

The plan, part of the House's massive budget-reconciliation measure, now goes to a House-Senate conference committee, where agreement is expected in the next few weeks.

Before clearing the package, the House defeated two substitutes that would have relied primarily on tax credits and imposed fewer restrictions on the use of funds.

Last week's contentious debate highlighted several issues--such as whether church-based child-care centers receiving federal aid may practice sectarian activities--that still must be resolved by conferees. It also pitted Democrats who favor federal child-care standards against Republicans who contend they would overburden states and drive up costs.

And the White House restated its opposition last week to key components of the measure.

But supporters billed the House action as a significant step.

"This is a major victory for children and working families," said Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the Education and Labor Committee. "It's the first time we've done something really tangible for them this decade."

Representative Pat Schroeder, Democrat of Colorado, added, "While children have not been a power issue in Washington, D.C., it appears today they have gained some power."

The House vote was complicated by a jurisdictional battle between the education panel and the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, which had approved competing versions of HR 3, "the early-childhood edel10lucation and development act." (See Education Week, Sept. 13, 1989.)

Because the two panels had not been able to work out a compromise, House leaders let both versions stand in the reconciliation measure, rather than bringing either to a vote as a freestanding bill.

The education panel's version, with Mr. Hawkins as its chief backer, centered on new child-care grants. The Ways and Means version, crafted by Representative Thomas J. Downey, Democrat of New York, included tax credits and added child-care funds to existing state block grants.

Substitutes Rejected

To retain both the Hawkins and Downey provisions in the budget bill, the House had to defeat a Republican substitute proposed by Representative Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma and a bipartisan substitute offered by Representatives Charles W. Stenholm, Democrat of Texas, and E. Clay Shaw, Republican of Florida.

The first, which was favored by President Bush, would have relied solely on an expansion of the earned-income tax credit and a new supplemental tax credit for young children. It failed on a 285-to-140 vote.

The Stenholm-Shaw amendment, considered a more serious threat, incorporated many of the Ways and Means components, but did not include child-care standards. Although backed by conservative Democrats, it was voted down 230 to 195.

After rejecting the amendments, the House cleared the budget-reconciliation measure by a 333-to-91 vote.

Bill's Provisions

The child-care package, which would cost about $1.8 billion in the fiscal year that began Oct. 1 and $22 billion over five years, would expand existing programs and provide new child-care grants and tax credits.

It would:

  • Expand Head Start to offer full-day, full-year programs and permit half of the new funds to serve children who are above the poverty line.
  • Offer grants to states for child-care programs for preschoolers and for school-based programs for before- and after-school care.
  • Increase funding for the Title XX Social-Services Block Grant and earmark 80 percent of the increase for child care.
  • Increase the amount of the earned-income tax credit and adjust it for family size, and offer a supplemental young-child credit for famlies with a child under 6.
  • Require states to set child-care health and safety standards within three years of enactment, and offer grants to help them improve their programs.
  • Earmark funds to coordinate existing services and promote child-care initiatives by businesses.

Church Issue Unresolved

Retaining the Hawkins-Downey provisions marked a victory for key education groups, which supported the school-based program proposed by the education panel and argued that the substitute bills did not sufficiently address child-care quality. They also backed its language barring the use of federal aid for sectarian worship or instruction.

The "act for better child-care services," the Senate bill that must be reconciled with the measure, permits the use of federal vouchers for sectarian activities.

The U.S. Catholic Conference, which backs the Senate version, had labeled HR 3 "totally unacceptable."

In addition to resolving the church-state debate, the Congress must overcome White House opposition.

The Hawkins-Downey approach "takes choice out of the hands of parents, pre-empts church care, brings on needless regulation, and ends up empowering bureaucrats, not parents," Steve Hart, a spokesman for the White House, said after the vote. "If the bill is not improved in conference, the President's senior advisers would recommend a veto."

Mr. Hawkins noted, however, that the President has not publicly stated that he would veto the bill. Others observed that to do so could risk appearing to back down on an early-childhood commitment he and the governors made at last month's education summit. (See story, page 15.)

"If he were to oppose legislation that would enhance programs for early childhood, it certainly would be inconsistent with what he said at the summit," a Senate aide said. "He would have come up with a pretty creative rationale."

But Mr. Hart argued that Mr. Bush, who proposed a $250-million increase in Head Start in his budget, was "one of the first chief advocates" of focusing federal aid on children.

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