Child-Care Bill, Parental Leave, Die in Congress

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Washington--Derailed by competing interest groups and pre-election political maneuvering, legislation granting federal subsidies for child care and mandating unpaid leave for parents to care for children died this month in the 100th Congress.

A bill merging the "parental and medical leave act" and the "act for better child-care services" fell when Senate proponents were unable to garner the 60 votes needed to pass a procedural measure closing debate. The failure effectively thwarted consideration of the bill in either chamber this session.

The 50-to-46 Senate vote was split largely along party lines, although five Republicans supported the measure and eight Democrats opposed it.

The defeat quashed Democratic leaders' hopes of advancing a "pro-family" agenda in this Congress addressing the child-care needs of single and working parents.

Observers last week attributed the outcome to an interplay of partisan politics, procedural tactics, business opposition to the parental-leave bill, and unresolved questions about church-state separation and other sticking points in the child-care measure.

Both bills faced substantial resistance from different segments of the education community, and their downfall has sparked a bitter clash between some education and child-advocacy groups.

The reactions of leaders in those fields last week also highlighted an underlying disunity among groups that share a common concern about the need for early-childhood care, but differ in their perception of what the federal government's role should be.

"If, as a public, we are going to addess the issue of care, the education establishment and the caregiving establishment are going to have to come together," said Arnold Fege, director of governmental relations for the National pta. "Those two communities don't see eye to eye, and I think that fact was reflected in this fight."

Most of the dissension within the education and child-care communities centered on the "a.b.c." bill, which would have allocated $2.5 billion to subsidize child care for low- and middle-income families, expand the supply of trained providers, and mandate health and safety standards.

Although a broad coalition of child-advocacy, civil-rights, health, and religious organizations supported the bill, its provisions for granting aid to church-based day-care centers drew opposition from several education groups. (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1988.)

Educators opposed to the bill feared that subsidizing day-care vouchers would open the door to a voucher program that could undermine the public schools. And they claimed the bill did not include sufficient anti-bias and other provisions to safeguard against religious indoctrination in church-based centers.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, last week laid most of the blame for the bill's failure on the National Education Association, which mounted strong opposition to its church-state provisions.

"The single most destructive feature in the entire coalition process was the role the n.e.a. played," said Ms. Edelman, who charged that the union had thwarted the bill by publicly airing its grievances late in the legislative process.

Although the church-state questions were considered more of a stumbling block in the House than the Senate, Ms. Edelman maintained that the n.e.a.'s opposition stalled action in either chamber for three months as coalition members and legislators sought to resolve the issue.

The n.e.a.'s position made it "very difficult in the waning days of the Congress to get an independent hearing on children's need for child care," she said.

Ms. Edelman also reiterated her earlier charges that the n.e.a. was motivated largely by concerns about "control and funding" of child care.

"I do not think church-state was the real issue," she said.

Michael Edwards, the n.e.a.'s manager of Congressional relations, dismissed that claim, saying that the union recognizes the need for di4verse child-care services. He added that the group has long supported programs--such as child nutrition and juvenile justice--that are not controlled by schools.

"I think it's very unfortunate," said the n.e.a.'s president, Mary Hatwood Futrell, "that Marian has decided to scapegoat teachers and education employees for the failure of the child-care bill, rather than working with various members of the education community to try to reach a compromise."

Ms. Futrell maintained that the n.e.a. voiced its concerns about the bill at the outset and was joined by other education groups and some religious and civil-liberties groups.

"We have our differences with the n.e.a., but for [Ms. Edelman] to single out one organization doesn't represent a very good history of what happened," said Mr. Fege of the pta, which shared the n.e.a.'s concerns on church-state issues.

"If people had sat down and dealt with the issues raised by the n.e.a. and other groups," Ms. Futrell said, "we could have had a bill in hand." Such a compromise, she added, would have helped the Congress avert the "political maneuvering" that ultimately killed the measure.

Jason Isaacson, press secretary to Senator Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, the chief sponsor of the child-care and parental-leave bills, acknowledged the significance of church-state issues. But senators who voted against the cloture measure "probably were not persuaded to do so by the n.e.a., the pta, or the American Civil Liberties Union," he said.

Observers noted, for example, that the bill also faced opposition over federal day-care standards.

"We make a terrible mistake when we think we know what ought to be done everyplace in this country and we are going to impose a federal mandate," said Senator Bob Packwood, Republican of Oregon.

The bill's cost--which would have exceeded $4 billion with a tax-credit initiative included by Senator Dodd and Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah--also "raised some eyebrows" in the Congress, said Mary Tavenner, a founding member of the Concerned Alliance of Responsible Employers. The care alliance opposed the parental-leave portion of the combined bill.

Although it is unclear whether the child-care measure would have succeeded on its own merits, some observers say coupling it with the controversial parental-leave measure did not aid its cause.

Senate Democrats merged the bills in the hope of gaining support for the leave bill, which Republicans threatened to filibuster.

That bill--which would have granted parents up to 10 weeks of unpaid leave over a two-year period to care for newborn, adopted, or seriously ill children and up to 10 weeks a year for their own illnesses--faced stiff opposition from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

Such groups oppose federally mandated benefits, which they say should be set by private employers through collective bargaining.

Donna R. Lenhoff, legal director of the Women's Legal Defense Fund, maintained that business opposition "would have killed" the parental-leave bill regardless of whether or not it was attached to the child-care bill.

While Republicans and conservative Democrats who voted against cloture generally had problems with both the leave and child-care measures, some of the Democrats were swayed heavily by the business lobby, according to Congressional aides.

Senator John Melcher of Montana, a co-sponsor of a.b.c., voted against cloture "under heavy pressure from small businesses" in his state that opposed the parental-leave bill, according to an aide. The aide said he had received letters and calls for at least a year on the issue.

Observers also suggested that some Republican senators who opposed parental leave but backed child-care legislation--including Senator Hatch of Utah--defeated cloture out of loyalty to Republican leaders.

The parental-leave debate highlighted further divisions among education groups. The c.d.f., the n.e.a., and the pta supported the leave bill, but several other groups opposed it on the grounds that it could disrupt "classroom continuity."

Michael A. Resnick, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association, charged that the bill could supersede school-district leave policies that allow employees more time off and give schools more discretion to schedule leave around the academic calender.

He argued that allowing employees to "absolutely control the calendar" and giving the Labor Department authority to regulate school personnel practices would hamper school operations.

Mr. Isaacson maintained, however, that the bill would not interfere with district policies and was intended mainly to assure "that infants would receive appropriate parental care in the first weeks of life."

In view of the increased emphasis on the importance of early-childhood care in the prevention of later school failure, education groups opposed to the leave and child-care bills acknowledged that they found themselves in an awkward position.

The National Asssociation of Elementary School Principals, which raised concerns about both bills, "felt very uneasy about the whole issue," said Samuel J. Sava, the group's executive director.

"We were one of the organizations that strongly advocates child bills of this nature, and we hoped all along that we would be able to reach some kind of compromise," he said. "We just were never able to pull it off." He added that the group will work to help pass similar legislation next year.

Among the pta board members, there was also concern "that we were opposing child care," Mr. Fege said.

The group "didn't just suddenly decide on a whim to take that position," he said. "We agreed that it was better to wait a year and grind out another policy, rather than to put children in day care and then send them back out on the streets because of a finding of unconsitutionality" by the courts.

Defending the n.s.b.a.'s stance on parental leave, Mr. Resnick said that ensuring educational continuity for "our main mission--children in the classroom"--took precedence over mandating an employee right that could also benefit children.

Despite such differences of opinion, observers agreed generally that pre-election political maneuvering contributed heavily to the bills' downfall.

While Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole of Kansas said the vote on cloture reflected a perceived need to "slow down" on child-care issues, Democrats accused the Republicans of stalling for political advantage.

"I must acknowledge to my friends on the other side of the aisle that their filibuster was successful," said Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. "They have won today, and America's families have lost."

Others contended that passing significant social legislation in only one year would have been unlikely under any circumstances.

"Trying to get widespread consensus about how society should act in a given situation is a long-term educational process," Ms. Lenhoff said. "Although we ultimately lost the battle, we got very far toward winning the war."

Mr. Isaacson added that child-care and leave policies have strong public support, and that "they'll just be a little riper next year."

Observers agreed, however, that the route new child-care legislation takes will depend in part on which candidate assumes the Presidency. Vice President George Bush, the Republican nominee, and Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, the Democratic nominee, both support federal child-care aid. But Mr. Bush has advocated a tax-credit approach and opposed federally mandated leave policies. Mr. Dukakis4largely favors the Democratic initiatives.

Both education and child-care advocates were optimistic, however, that prospects for child-care legislation would improve next year.

"I think people will be much more amenable to working out differences, once we get away from the heat" of electoral politics and legislative deadlines, Ms. Futrell said.

Ms. Edelman voiced confidence that the a.b.c. coalition "will certainly be stronger when we come back," but she indicated a reluctance to work with the n.e.a. without "some semblance of trust."

Nevertheless, Ms. Edelman joined others in acknowledging the need for unity in the movement to forge a coherent national policy on issues affecting working parents and children.

"All of us from all points of view are going to have to look at what children need and what parents need and put together a system of care that supports families and supports children," she said.

Vol. 08, Issue 07

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