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Advocates Mobilize To Fight Proposed Cuts in Child Care

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Washington

Child-care providers, parents, and child-advocacy groups have been flooding the White House with letters and phone calls in the past few weeks, appealing to President Clinton to fight congressional Republicans' efforts to dismantle federal child-care programs.

On a chilly afternoon last week, hundreds of these advocates staged a protest outside the White House, imploring the president to reject welfare-reform legislation that they claim would leave millions of needy children out in the cold.

"President Clinton said he would only sign a welfare bill that was tough on work and fair to kids, and this is not fair to kids," Barbara Reisman, the executive director of the Child-Care Action Campaign, a New York City-based advocacy group, said at the rally.

The welfare-reform plan, which Congress sent to the president as part of a so-called budget-reconciliation package last month, would transfer control of more than 40 federal welfare programs to the states. Each state would receive lump-sum payments to run its own welfare programs, child-care services, and Medicaid programs, among other services. (See Education Week, Nov. 22, 1995.)

President Clinton, who has said the measure cuts too deeply into "safety net" programs, is expected to veto the massive bill this week.

"Cars don't run without engines, jets don't fly without wings, and welfare reform ... will not fly without good child care," Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala said last week at a conference here of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. (See story, page 7.)

But a new reconciliation package would have to be negotiated, and the provisions are also included in a separate welfare-reform bill, HR 4. Some child advocates worry that pressure to reform the widely criticized federal welfare system before the next election might prompt President Clinton to eventually sign a measure similar to the pending bill. Mr. Clinton campaigned in 1992 on a promise to "end welfare as we know it."

Under the GOP plan, several federal child-care programs--serving both the working poor and families on welfare--would be collapsed into a single child-care block grant to the states. Republican leaders say the proposal would streamline the child-care bureaucracy and allow states the flexibility to design systems that best serve their own children.

Funds Called Inadequate

But child-care advocates say the amount of funding authorized by the welfare-reform plan is grossly inadequate.

The bill would authorize a total of $17 billion in child-care funding over seven years--$2.42 billion per year. This represents a victory for moderate senators on the House-Senate conference committee that drafted the final reconciliation bill, as the authorized total is only $200 million less per year than the Senate bill called for and far exceeds the $10 billion over seven years called for in the House bill.

There is no spending ceiling for existing child-care programs, which received $2.03 billion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

While the GOP plan would authorize more spending, advocates note, the welfare-reform plan mandates that a parent with a child over age 6 work in exchange for their welfare check, and thus more money will be needed for child-care services. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that $31 billion would be needed over seven years to meet the work requirements.

Child-care groups also fear that working-poor families would be shortchanged under the Republican plan because 70 percent of the funds are earmarked for welfare recipients and states could use even more of their dollars to meet the needs of families on welfare.

Danger to Children?

Child-care groups are also concerned that the bill could pose serious physical danger for children by eliminating a requirement that all child-care providers who receive federal funds meet minimum health and safety standards.

Only nine states now require child-care providers to be licensed. Many states monitor child-care centers to see if they meet fire-safety, nutrition, and injury-prevention standards. But state laws vary widely and are rarely comprehensive, advocates say.

The proposed legislation would also lump funding now earmarked for employee screenings and health and safety programs, as well as for agencies that train child-care workers and provide referrals for low-income parents, into the block grants. That would allow states to decide whether to devote any money to those purposes, and advocates worry that protections for children would be eliminated.

A California agency that conducts background checks reports that about 5 percent of state applicants for child-care jobs have criminal records, and 60 percent of those involve child-abuse convictions.

"We are not talking about Cadillac care, but about protecting children's basic safety," said Ruth Anne Foote, a program manager for the Washington-based National Association of Child-Care Resource and Referral Agencies.

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