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Child-Care Accord Improves Chances For Bill's Passage

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Washington--In a breakthrough that increased the chances that child-care legis lation would be approved before the end of he Congressional session, Senate leaders announced last week they had reached an agreement with the White House on a new version of the bill, which has been bogged down in a conference committee for months.

The agreement is part of a $15-billion, five-year package of child-care tax credits and grants that the Senate was expected to include in a budget-reconciliation measure bill, approved earlier in the week, was stripped of all but the tax-related provisions of HR 3, the child-care bill passed by the House last spring.

The plan crafted by Senate leaders to meet White House approval differs significantly from the bill the Senate passed last year and from a tentative agreement that had been worked out between House and Senate education conferees this month.

While hailed by child-care advocacy groups as a significant step in ensuring a federal role in improving child-care services, the agreement evoked disappointment from education groups that have sought a greater role for schools in the pro vision of early-childhood-education and "latchkey" programs.

To overcome White House resistance, " Senate leaders watered down components % of their chamber's bill that would have set aside funds for school-based programs and for an expansion of Head Start to offer full-day, full-year programs.

"The compromise pales in comparison to the agreement reached by the [House] Education and Labor and [Senate] Human Resources subconference on HR 3," Representative Augustus F. Hawkins, chairman of the House education panel, said in a statement in which he pledged to seek improvements in the plan.

"The schools are a logical partner to provide before- and after-school care as well as early-childhood programs," the California Democrat said. "Under the agreement, there is no meaning ful role for the schools."

Representative Leon E. Panetta, Democrat of California and chairman of the House Budget Committee, offered Mr. Hawkins assurances last week that his concerns could be aired in a House-Senate conference on the budget-reconciliation bill.

But because the White House, seeking to protect private-sector and religious interests in the provision of child care, has objected so strongly to a grant program expanding schools' role, it was unclear how much negotiating room remained. The fate of the child-care legislation last week also hinged on overall White House approval of the budget measure that was wending its way through the Congress. It was still possible that non-tax-related child-care provisions could be stricken from the final budget agreement, or that President Bush would veto the entire package.

The Congress was aiming to adjourn by Oct. 20, but it appeared that the lawmakers might need extra time to resolve differences on the budget.

The agreement forged by the Senate leaders and the Administration would authorize $750 million in fiscal year 1991 and a total of $2.5 billion over three years for child-care grants to states, which would receive funds through a formula based on the number of children under age 5 and the number of pupils receiving aid under the school-lunch program.

Children under 13 whose parents work would be eligible if their family income was below 75 percent of the state median income.

Under the plan, 75 percent of the funds could be used for activities to increase the availability, affordability, and quality of child care. States could make services available through grants to or contracts with providers, or by offering parents vouchers they could use with any licensed, regulated, or registered provider in compliance with state and local law.

Of the remaining 25 percent, 10 percent would be set aside for "quality improvement" efforts, such as helping providers meet standards, offering training, or raising wages. Another 10 percent would go to grants and contracts for providers of early-childhood education and before- and after- school child care, including but not limited to schools. The remaining 5 percent could be used for quality enhancement or for activities for preschool and latchkey children, or be divided among such efforts.

Priority for this 25 percent would go to providers in areas with high concentrations of children in poverty that meet the requirements for Chapter 1 "concentration grants."

States would be required to have in place child-care standards governing building safety, health and safety training, and the prevention of infectious diseases, and to ensure that providers receiving aid under the measure complied with the standards.

In addition, parents would be al lowed unlimited access to the child- care program and would have to be provided information on licensing and complaint procedures.

The Senate leaders' plan would L also earmark several billion dollars, paid for by a continuation of the telephone-excise tax, for tax-related pro visions aimed at making child care more affordable, including an expansion of the earned-income tax credit.

Senators involved in negotiations with the White House, including sponsors of the bill, chairmen of the education and finance panels, and Democratic leaders, described the plan as a fair compromise that scaled down the grants and standards provisions objectionable to Mr. Bush while preserving key health and safety and program-quality features.

Although the plan's provisions on standards--an issue child-care advocates have been adamant about--are the least stringent of the various versions of the legislation, most such advocates last week voiced support.

"A different version might have L been stronger, but this represents a fair compromise and a good basis on which to build," said Barbara A. Will er, director of information services for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Helen Blank, a senior program associate with the Children's Defense Fund, said the plan, while "not perfect," was "a step forward." "The way the clock was ticking, it didn't seem very likely that we would see movement" to enact the conference agreement under discussion be tween conferees from the House and Senate education and tax-writing Lanels, Ms. Blank said, adding that the plan "does contain some of the essential components of both bills."

But Mr. Hawkins of the House L Education and Labor Committee noted that the $1.75 billion HR 3 would have authorized in fiscal 1991 was reduced by more than half, and that funds set aside for preschool and latchkey programs were pared from $530 million to $75 million. Maribeth Oakes, a governmental-ons specialist with the National PTA, also noted that schools would have to compete with religious institutions and for- and non-profit providers for funds. She said de-emphasizing the education components of the bill was "contemptible" in light of the stated goal of the President and the governors that all children begin school ready to learn.

The agreement would assure "no where near the levels of participation [by schools] that would have occurred under HR 3, added Dorothy Clarke, a legislative analyst with the National School Boards Association. And education groups troubled by recent versions of the bill allowing funds to be used in child-care settings with a religious orientation were concerned the plan would allow a large share of aid to be used for vouchers.

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