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Scientists' Panel Urges Big Boost In Child-Care Aid

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Washington--Warning that inadequate child care could have "immediate and long-term implications for the health and well-being of children," a panel convened by one of the country's most respected scientific groups last week presented its case for a significantly larger public investment in such services.

In a 347-page report released here, the 19-member, interdisciplinary panel named by the National Research Council concludes that child care is unavailable, unaffordable, or fails to meet "basic standards of quality" for large numbers of U.S. children.

Among other recommendations, it calls for spending increases that could more than double the amount of public aid going to help subsidize child care for low-income families and bolster family-day-care systems, caregiver training, referral programs, and other support services.

The report, Who Cares for America's Children: Child Care Policy for the 1990's, also seeks an expansion of Head Start and other programs for at-risk preschoolers; the establishment of national standards to improve child-care quality; and legislation mandating that employers offer parents of newborn or adopted infants up to one year of unpaid leave.

The urgency of these issues is underscored by the panel's prediction that, by the turn of the century, nearly 80 percent of school-age children and 70 percent of preschoolers will have mothers who work outside the home. Currently, about 60 percent of all children under age 13 have mothers in the workforce.

The National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering, formed the Panel on Child Care Policy in 1987 to review and assess existing data on the costs and effects of child-care policies and programs.

The group included experts in pediatrics, public policy, business, labor, education, child development, child care, economics, and other social sciences.

Although the report's synthesis of data offers no new information, observers said it could add an important dimension to the child-care debate, given the panel's stature and expertise across a wide range of fields.

"I hope it will have influence because of the type of group that formulated the recommendations," said Barbara A. Willer, a spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

The two-year study, which cost $856,000, was funded by the Department of Health and Human Services, the Ford Foundation, and the Foundation for Child Development.

Silent on Pending Bills

While the recommendations go beyond the provisions of the child-care bills now being considered by the Congress, some child-care advocates voiced disappointment that the panel did not endorse a specific legislative proposal or funding approach.

The panel urged federal, state, and local governments to increase their annual child-care expenditures--now estimated at $8 billion--by $5 billion to $10 billion.

"Their call for new funding is very welcome," said Ms. Willer of the naeyc "But we would have liked to see the report go further" by evaluating various plans being eyed by the Congress.

The panel, for example, did not weigh in on the long-running debate on Capitol Hill over whether to finance some types of child-care services under an existing block-grant program, or through a new program of direct grants to providers. (See story on page 18.)

Its neutrality on such issues was disappointing, Ms. Willer said, "given the fact that the panel was convened during two years of intense debate" over child-care legislation.

The panel is sending "mixed messages," added Helen Blank, a senior program associate with the Children's Defense Fund.

"They are ahead of Congress by recognizing problems in the quality and infrastructure" of child-care services, she said. But "not being specific on funding sources leaves poor families in between," she argued.

Role of Quality Stressed

Panel members said they could not endorse a particular funding approach on the basis of scientific data. But they argued that their findings on the importance of maintaining a "regulable" level of child-care quality carry significant policy implications.

Although the report cites "lingering disputes" over the effects of full-time child care in an infant's first year of life, it concludes that such care is "not inevitably or pervasively harmful." It is the quality of care that largely determines its success, the panel suggested.

"There is no evidence that good-quality child care is any worse than good-quality family care," said Barbara Bowman, a panel member who is director of the Erikson Institute in Chicago. The group's major accomplishment, she said, was to "carve out a body of agreement that says there is good scientific support for at least this much" improvement in child care.

At a news conference here last week, the chairman of the panel, John L. Palmer, dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, cited strong evidence of a link between "the quality of care a child receives early in life and healthy development" of cognitive skills and social relationships.

While high-quality out-of-home care can offset some of the detrimental effects of a stressful, impoverished home, the panel argued, "poor-quality care, more than any single type of program or arrangement, threatens children's development."

The panel said many children are in settings that do not protect health and safety or offer "appropriate developmental stimulation"--and that those who could gain most from high-quality programs often receive the poorest care.

Arguing that child-care policies should give priority to the disadvantaged, the group noted that low-income families receive less than 30 percent of federal child-care aid, down from 80 percent in 1972.

"Child-care costs are a crushing burden for many low-income families," said Andrew Cherlin, a panelist who is a professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

'Investment in Productivity'

Besides advocating more federal and state child-care aid for poor families, the group urged the federal government to set "reasonable ranges," based on current research, for standards on staff-child ratios, group size, caregiver training, and facility design.

Although some states now allow one person to care for as many as 12 infants, the panel said staff-child ratios should not exceed the following maximums: one to four for children under age 2; one to six for 2-year-olds; and 1 to 10 for 3- to 5-year-olds.

Caregivers should be trained in child development theory and practice, the group said, adding that data show that "more years of general education contribute to caregiver performance and children's developmental outcomes."

The panel noted that child-care standards vary widely among states, that 60 percent of private homes providing day care are unlicensed, and that low staff wages and high turnover threaten the "stable relationships" that data show support healthy child development.

Addressing such issues will "not be cheap," warned the chairman, Mr. Palmer, but should be seen "as an investment in the health and development of children, the well-being of American families, and the future productivity" of the workforce.

While citing a need to coordinate existing services, the panel said the diversity of the current child-care8market, with its network of centers and day-care homes, should be maintained. A role should be ensured for various levels of government, volunteer organizations, employers, communities, families, and individuals, the report says, and policies should "affirm the role and responsibilities of families in childrearing."

No Consensus on Risks

Based on a review of research on the effects of child care, the panel concluded that "there is no strong basis in our review for urging parents toward or away from enrolling children in child-care settings." But it emphasized that variations in the quality of services can adversely affect children's development.

One of the panelists, Jack P. Shonkoff, professor of pediatrics at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, cited, for example, an increased risk of emotional, social, and learning problems for children who receive poor care in their early years.

The report notes that while older children enrolled in child care show "no marked differences" in their patterns of maternal attachment than those reared at home, researchers disagree about the effect of full-time care on infants in the first year of life.

Researchers generally agree that a higher proportion of infants who are enrolled in programs for more than 20 hours a week in their first year display distinctive behaviors, Dr. Shonkoff said.

"But there is no consensus on what the behavior shows," he emphasized, noting that child-care critics interpret it as insecurity while advocates say it reflects a "greater independence and maturity."

The report states that data on early-intervention efforts for at-risk preschoolers generally show that their intellectual gains are temporary rather than long-term. But such programs can improve "school-related behavior," it adds, and cognitive gains can be sustained in programs that continue into and complement elementary schooling.

In contrast to past and current research focusing on the effects of child care versus parental care and comparing the developmental effects of various environments, the report predicts, an emerging wave of research will "view the home and child-care environments as linked and mutually influential."

The panel also called for further study on the effects of child-care regulation, the benefits of investments in caregiver training, the growth of public-school programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, and the role of employer-sponsored child-care initiatives.

Copies of the report will be available beginning May 1. They can be ordered for $24.95 each from the National Academy Press, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20418.

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