Child-Care Bill's Odds for Passage Said Diminishing

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By Deborah L. Gold

Washington--A debate that has been simmering for several months over a major child-care bill pending in the Congress erupted into a clash last week among some members of a broad-based coalition of groups that have been backing the measure.

Sharp divisions between some education and children's advocacy groups surfaced as press reports indicated that unresolved issues may thwart consideration of the measure this session.

At the crux of the debate is what role the federal government should play in supporting child-care services based in religious institutions.

care services."

The bill, backed by an alliance of 130 national organizations, was introduced last year and approved by House and Senate ed-ucation Ms. Edelmen maintained that the bill contains adequate safeguards against sectarian use of the funds, and that the language reflects a compromise that has broad-based support from educators as well as civil-rights and religious groups. Observers and lawmakers said last week, however, that prospects for passage of the "a.b.c." bill in the final weeks of this session have dimmed, in part because of the church-state controversy.

Representative Augustus F. Hawkins of California, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, predicted in an interview that the bill has a 50-50 chance of reaching the floor before the Congress adjourns next month.

Mr. Hawkins, who said he shares some of the n.e.a. and pta concerns, said it would be "a gamble" to move the bill without their backing and risk losing the support of some Democrats.

"We are not getting enough support from Republicans," Mr. Hawkins said. "We can't afford to have the Democrats divided."

Mr Hawkins stressed, however, that he would prefer to see the bill's constitutionality tested in the courts rather than to defer its passage.

He added that House and Senate staff members are negotiating on amendments that could be offered in an attempt to address the issue.

Hopes for 'Family Issues'

Congressional leaders and sponsors of the child-care legislation last week also voiced the hope that the bill would advance as part of a triad of measures that also includes raising the minimum wage and granting parents unpaid leave to care for children.

Such "family issues" have gained increasing support from voters and heightened visibility in the Presidential campaign, and a failure to capitalize on their timeliness could jeopardize the measures indefinitely, observers said.

"Every one of them affects the family situation, and they should be moved together," Mr. Hawkins said. As of late last week, however, it appeared that action on the minimum- wage and family-leave bills would precede the child-care measure.

New Language, Fewer Barriers

The a.b.c. bill, whose chief sponsors are Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, and Representative Dale E. Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, is intended to help low4and moderate-income parents pay for child care, to offer support to providers, and to establish federal health and safety guidelines.

As passed by the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee and the House Education and Labor Committee, the bill would give states the option of providing subsidies for child-care providers or giving parents "child-care certificates" to seek services at the provider of their choice.

Largely as a concession to the n.e.a., the bill as introduced would have restricted church-based centers from participation in severalways. It would have required that:

Religious symbols be removed or covered;

Religious affiliation not be considered in admitting children or hiring teachers, and

Capital-improvement funds be disallowed for sectarian institutions.

The effect of the restrictions would have been to "totally exclude church-based programs from participating," said Richard E. Duffy, staff assistant for education at the U.S. Catholic Conference, which threatened to oppose the bill in that form.

To address those concerns, the sponsors drafted new language that continued to bar the use of funds for sectarian purposes or instruction, but dropped most of the other prohibitions--including the ban on religious discrimination in hiring.

The new language would still bar church-based centers from showing preference in admissions on the basis of religion, but only for children whose care is directly subsidized by the bill.

The language was backed by a majority of the abc alliance, which includes children's advocacy, health, education, religious, and civil-rights organizations, and labor unions. House and Senate education panels passed the measure with the redrafted language, despite attempts to amend it.

'So Fundamental'

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State both have opposed the bill since its inception, saying it could unconstitutionally advance religion and cause excessive entanglement between church and state.

The bill "will not only provide an unconstitutional mechanism for funding church-run day care in this country, it will also generate years of litigation as well as great uncertainty within government agencies and churches until the courts decide whether such programs are Constitutional," Lee Boothby, general counsel for Americans United, wrote in an analysis of the bill.

In recent weeks, the n.e.a. and the pta, original members of the alliance, also have publicly aired their concerns, which have been echoed by other education groups.

These groups say they support the bill's overall aims, but hope to press the Congress to consider alternative provisions for including churches.

One of their fears is that the use of child-care certificates at church-based child-care centers could pave the way for a public-school voucher system that could be used to subsidize parochial-school education.

"If Congress gives license to vouchers in a child-care bill, how many steps are we away from seeing a voucher in a K-12 program?" said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National pta. "This is an issue that is so fundamental to us that we've got no choice" but to oppose the current bill, he said.

Religious 'Inculcation'

Some educators also maintain that allowing churches to display a preference in hiring employees of their own faith increases opportunities for indoctrination in provision of child care.

"The site of the care is not the issue: it's the possible religious inculcation paid for by federal funds," said Edward P. Keller, deputy executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

"There has to be a more defined and stringent test for what are permissible activities ... and more adequate assurance that they do not discriminate on the basis of religion in the conduct of child-care programs," said Michael B. Edwards, manager of congressional relations for the n.e.a.

"Our position on these issues has been absolutely clear from the start," added Mr. Edwards, who dismissed charges by Ms. Edelman that the group failed to air its concerns in earlier bill-drafting sessions and is now attempting to sabotage the bill.

Education or Custodial Care?

A key argument advanced by educators troubled by the bill is that child care should be subject to the same church-state guidelines as education.

"There is nothing magic about 5 years old," when children begin formal schooling, said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "No matter what you want to say," he added, the bill would aid in subsidizing "preschool with a religious slant in a religious environment."

An amendment that would have emphasized the bill's educational purpose was defeated by the House education panel.

Representative Pat Williams of Montana, the amendment's sponsor, said the vote, ironically, signifiedel15lthat "the House Education and Labor Committee is saying child-care programs are to be custodial" rather than educational.

Mr. Kildee contended that promoting academics in child care could encourage formal schooling at an inappropriate age, which "runs counter'' to the views of child-development experts.

Mr. Hawkins also noted that "the more 'educational' the bill becomes, the less likely it is that it will be upheld" by courts, which have historically blocked federal aid that could be viewed as advancing religion in schools.

Debate on Bias Protections

The bill's proponents contend, however, that it would not unconstitutionally advance religion and that its anti-bias protections are consistent with existing civil-rights laws.

Critics have argued that by limiting anti-bias provisions to children who receive direct child-care subsidies, the measure violates the spirit of the Civil Rights Restoration Act. That act, which reversed the Supreme Court's 1983 ruling in Grove City v. Bell, holds agencies accountable for anti-bias statutes on an institutionwide basis rather than limiting protections to programs receiving federal funds.

In a letter to Mr. Hawkins, however, the Washington lawyer Joseph L. Rauh Jr. said the "a.b.c. raises no legal problem under the Restoration Act" or the civil-rights laws it amended, since they do not apply to religious discrimination.

"Child care should not be asked to bear a heavier burden than other legislation," Mr. Kildee told the House education panel.

Those concerned about the limitations of civil-rights laws "may have a forum," Ms. Edelman said, but it should not be the a.b.c. bill. "We're not trying to create new church-state law or new employment-discrimination law: we're trying to pass a child-care bill."

In a letter of support for the a.b.c. bill, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson agreed that such efforts "are not appropriately focused in a bill which is so essential to the well-being of millions of American children and the the economic security of the families in which they are being raised."

Termed 'Good Compromise'

Some education groups have adopted a similar position.

To place severe restrictions on church participation "is to say we can't have a child-care bill," said Gregory Humphrey, legislative director for the American Federation of Teachers. "I won't stand up and say this is the best bill we've ever had, but given the breadth of support behind it, it's a good compromise."

"The country needs day care on a scale the bill supports to such an extent that this is a matter of trying to balance priorities," added Michael D. Casserly, associate director for the Council of the Great City Schools. He said his group will continue to support the bill even if its concerns about vouchers and discrimination are not addressed.

Mr. Humphrey also contended that vouchers are not "as compelling a problem" in child care as they are in schools, because there is no "public system of child care" that can be undermined and attendance is not mandatory.

Head Start has successfully operated programs in churches for many years, he pointed out.

Among the amendments that failed in the House Education and Labor Committee--but may resurface in floor debate--was a proposal that would require religious institutions to set up a separate entity outside of church control to operate child-care centers.

Mr. Hawkins also has offered to include report language stating that the use of vouchers for child care should not be construed as a precedent for school vouchers.

Mr. Keller said some education groups are also seeking an amendment that would restrict the use of child-care certificates to care provided in private homes.

Other Obstacles

Lawmakers say the church-state dilemma is one of several issues--ranging from a debate on day-care standards to concerns about the bill's funding level--that must be addressed in the child-care legislation.

Competing legislative priorities and Presidential election politics may also affect the bill's outcome, note observers, who point to a childcare tax-credit proposal recently offered by Vice President George Bush, the Republican nominee. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988.)

Mr. Hawkins noted that proposals to attach a tax-credit feature to the abc bill, which are being pressed by Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and other Republicans, could stall the bill indefinitely, since the measure would then have to be weighed by Congressional tax committees.

Congressional sources agree, however, that reconciling remaining concerns on the church-state issue will not be easy.

"A compromise was worked out with a tremendously diverse number of constituencies," said Jason Isaacson, Mr. Dodd's press secretary. "Sponsors have been pleased to be able to achieve any degree of agreement at all on language on this very historically contentious issue."

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