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Child-Care Block Grant Clears Education Committee

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Washington

A House committee approved legislation last week that would consolidate nine federal child-care programs into a single block grant to be administered by the states.

The chairman of the House Economic and Educational Opportunities Committee, Rep. Bill Goodling, R-Pa., said the legislation would slash federal bureaucracy, save money, and give states the flexibility to design programs that suit local needs.

"If you turn them loose and give them the opportunity to be creative and innovative, they'll do it," he said.

But Democratic opponents and child-care advocates argued that the proposal would eventually result in funding cuts, and would jeopardize the availability and quality of child care at a time when other legislative changes being considered by Congress increase demand for the services.

Throughout the laborious two-day proceedings, outnumbered Democrats angrily protested, stalled, and offered amendments to a bill they called fraudulent, simplistic, and a punishment for needy children.

In addition to its child-care measures, the committee's contribution to the G.O.P.'s welfare-reform initiative would turn the federal school-lunch and -breakfast programs into another block grant. (See story, this page.)

The committee passed HR 999, the proposed "welfare-reform consolidation act," on a 23-to-17 party-line vote.

The bill will be combined with other committees' work--including provisions approved recently by the House Ways and Means Committee that would deny welfare benefits to unwed mothers under age 18, and turn the nation's major welfare programs into more block grants. (See Education Week, Feb. 22, 1995.)

'A Massacre for Children'

More than 500 child-care providers from around the nation, armed with life-size cardboard dolls representing children from working families, paraded on the steps of the Capitol last Thursday and swarmed the committee meetings to showcase the importance of safe, affordable child care.

The Republicans' promise to revamp welfare and send thousands of recipients back to work will skyrocket the demand for child care, the protesters said. Yet, HR 999 cuts funding for child-care programs and, advocates say, jeopardizes their quality.

The bill is "a massacre for children," said Helen Blank, the director of the child-care division of the Children's Defense Fund.

Under the measure, the child-care block grant would be funded at a level $1.94 billion for each of the next five years, which is the amount the federal government spent in fiscal 1994 on all nine programs combined.

Lower administrative costs and increased flexibility would save nearly $2.5 billion over the five-year period, Republicans said, while continuing to provide services to the same or a greater number of families.

But Democrats argued that because of growth in the demand for child care, the suggested funding levels would fall short.

"The idea is good, but the numbers just don't add up," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., contending that by 2000, 377,000 eligible children would go without day-care benefits.

HR 999 would also repeal a requirement that states enforce health, safety, and provider-training standards in all subsidized child-care centers.

"Without that requirement, you could theoretically be using federal funds to pay for programs that maintain unsafe and unhealthy environments," said Robin Brazley, a program associate for the New York City-based Child Care Action Campaign.

In addition, the bill would eliminate funds set aside for improving program quality and providing consumer information to parents.

Family-child-care providers would be also hard-hit by the legislation's nutrition provisions. Most of the money in a proposed family-nutrition block grant would be designated for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research organization, family-based day-care centers stand to lose up to 40 percent of their funding, and states would be required to deny benefits to middle-income families.

Strapped for cash, child-care centers would have to stop serving meals, increase their fees, or shut down altogether, Ms. Brazley said.

A 'Travesty?'

Democrats repeatedly criticized the majority Republicans for rushing a complicated and crucial bill through the legislative process so that they could meet the House G.O.P.'s 100-day deadline for passing the components of the "Contract With America."

"I never thought I would see this kind of a travesty, where you would want to rewrite programs that have been in existence, some for 60 years, in 60 minutes," said the committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo.

The Republicans rejected nearly all amendments offered by committee Democrats.

Among them were provisions that would have guaranteed child care to parents forced to work or enter a job-training program under welfare reform, insured that child-care centers met certain safety requirements, guaranteed services to the working poor, restored the quality-improvement funds, and prevented the transfer of funds between programs.

The next stop for HR 999 is the House floor, where it will be voted on as part of the larger welfare-reform package. Observers said changes to the legislation would be more likely in the Senate, which has a long history of support for child care.

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