House Passes Child-Care Legislation After Rejecting Bush-Backed Version

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Washington--After months of disagreement between two key committees and numerous challenges from both parties, the House last week passed a $30-billion child-care bill that would expand Head Start and Title XX block-grant funds, finance school-based preschool and "latchkey" programs, and offer income-tax credits to help parents offset child-care costs.

The House approved the measure by a vote of 265 to 145 after defeating a less costly White House-backed substitute and two Democratic-sponsored amendments on church-state issues.

The substitute bill, offered by Representatives Charles W. Stenholm, Democrat of Texas, and E. Clay Shaw, Republican of Florida, fell by a 225-to-195 vote.

But the bill that won approval, called "the early-childhood education and development act," still must be reconciled with a Senate version passed last year.

And President Bush has threatened to veto the measure, which the White House has labeled "an exercise in fiscal irresponsibility." Mr. Bush also maintains that, despite provisions on child-care vouchers, the bill's "intrusive regulatory standards" would limit parental choice.

The bill, originally called the "act for better child-care services," has been under debate since 1987. While the so-called abc proposal was watered down in the protracted process leading to the bill's passage, Congressional backers called last week's action a significant step.

The House majority leader, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, said the bill "may be the most important issue we are going to deal with this year."

But the nation's two largest teachers' unions and some other education groups urged House members to oppose final passage, citing objections to a provision mandating that states offer vouchers that could be used to pay for religiously oriented child care.

Competing Plans

House leaders crafted the bill to merge competing plans from the Education and Labor Committee and the Ways and Means Committee, which disagreed over whether to channel funds through a new or existing grant program.

While the Democratic leadership yielded to the Ways and Means Committee, which favored using the existing Title XX program, the issue is likely to resurface in a House-Senate conference committee.

The bill, which would authorize spending $1.75 billion in fiscal 1991 and about $27.5 billion over five years, would provide:

$611 million to expand the Head Start program to provide full-day and full-year child care.

$429 million in grants to states to expand or establish full-day, full-year programs for preschoolers, or before- and after-school-care programs for school-age children.

$2.9 billion over five years to expand the Title XX Social Services Block Grant and earmark the increase for child care.

About $18 billion over five years to expand the earned-income tax credit for low-income families, adjust the credit for family size, and offer an additional tax credit for those with children under age 6.

$25 million for grants to spur businesses to provide child care.

$75 million for grants to help states improve day-care standards. While the bill does not dictate specific federal standards, it requires states, within three years, to set standards in areas such as child-staff ratios and health protections. Providers receiving Title XX aid would have to complete 15 hours of training annually.

Voucher Provisions

Because religious institutions now supply an estimated one-third of the nation's child care, allowing their involvement in the proposed program was considered critical by lawmakers supporting the initiative.

House leaders included language, similar to that in the Senate version, that would require states that received block-grant funds to offer parents vouchers to pay for child care in church-based centers.

In addition, the bill would allow church-based providers that received less than 80 percent of their funds from federal and state sources to favor church members in hiring and admissions. It would also permit them to require that workers adhere to their religious tenets.

The bill would not, however, override any state law or state constitutional prohibition on the use of public funds by sectarian institutions.

Representative Don Edwards, the California Democrat who chairs the House Civil and Constitutional Rights Subcommittee, offered an amendment that would have permitted funding for church-based care, but not for sectarian activities. It was rejected by a 297-to-125 vote.

The Children's Defense Fund, the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education backed the bill as adopted.

But 20 other groups, including the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, other education organizations, and certain religious groups, warned in a statement that defeat of the Edwards amendment "means that the bill will violate the fundamental principles of the separation of church and state" and sanction discrimination.

Groups such as the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National pta have long argued that child-care vouchers could set a precedent for vouchers for school-age children.

But the House spurned an amendment making the provision of vouchers optional.

The Administration and the Council on American Private Education favored mandatory vouchers, and raised concerns that the school-based component would exclude religious schools. Funds for that section would be distributed under the formula used for the federal Chapter 1 program, which, since the U.S. Supreme Court's 1985 ruling in Aguilar v. Felton, has operated under certain restrictions in providing services to religious-school students.

Vol. 09, Issue 28

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