President Clinton Unveils Proposals To Upgrade Child Care

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Giving child-care advocates the attention they have wanted for years, President Clinton last week unveiled four initiatives to improve America's fragmented child-care system and promised to follow up those efforts with a broader agenda in his State of the Union Address in January.

As he kicked off the Oct. 23 White House conference on child care, Mr. Clinton announced two proposals submitted to Congress--one for a five-year, $300 million scholarship fund that would encourage child-care providers to get training and stay in the field, and another that would make it easier for states to conduct background checks on providers and share that information with other states.

Calling affordable, accessible, and safe child care "America's next great frontier," the president also instructed Secretary of the Treasury Robert E. Rubin to oversee a working group on child care that involves business leaders, and he announced that the Corporation for National Service, which administers AmeriCorps, will aim more volunteers toward well-designed after-school programs.

"No parent should ever have to choose between work and family," Mr. Clinton told the conference-goers, adding that he also hopes Congress will agree to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act in order to give parents more time away from work for their children's visits to the doctor or for teacher conferences.

He said he also supports a "flextime" law that would allow parents to choose between overtime pay or time off from work.

Speakers and participants at the daylong event said they were happy that child-care issues were in such a prominent spotlight.

"I'm feeling very gratified," said Barbara Willer, a spokeswoman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington.

Donna E. Shalala

Others said that more corporate executives need to recognize the links between good child care and productive employees.

"Most people would rather tell their bosses they had a flat tire than they had a child-care problem," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala.

Insufficient Quality

The conference follows a similar event held at the White House last April when Mr. Clinton and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton brought together experts on early-childhood development who stressed the importance of secure attachments to parents and child-care providers during the first years of life. ("Clinton Announces 5 Child-Care, Early-Years Initiatives," April 23, 1997.)

High-quality child care is both warm and responsive, Ellen Galinsky, the president of the New York City-based Families and Work Institute, a research and advocacy organization, said at last week's gathering.

But studies have shown that many centers and family-child-care homes compromise children's health and safety, as well as their emotional and intellectual development. The situation is even more critical, researchers say, for infants, children with special needs, and school-age children.

Richard W. Riley

During the afternoon session, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley called for more community-based after-school programs that would provide children with "safe havens" while their parents are still at work. Statistics have shown that juvenile crime peaks during the after-school hours.

One purpose of the conference was to highlight model programs throughout the country, including North Carolina's Smart Start, a public-private effort to make child care more widely available. North Carolina's Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., a Democrat, also helped establish his state's Teacher Education and Compensation Helps--or TEACH--program, an inspiration for Mr. Clinton's new early-childhood-scholarship proposal.

During the April conference, President Clinton also instructed the Department of Defense, which runs the largest--and what many consider to be one of the best--child-care programs in the country to provide technical assistance to civilian providers.

Maj. Gen. John G. Meyer Jr., the chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army, reported at last week's conference that the Defense Department will soon have its child-care training materials available to anyone who wants them.

Federal Role Questioned

While advocates gathered at the conference were asking for more federal support, critics of the president's policies were citing different studies that suggest most families are satisfied with the quality of the child care they receive.

A study from the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, called the government's role in child care "a solution in search of a problem," and said that the discussion about quality is being pushed by special-interest groups, not parents.

Bruce Reed, the president's director of domestic policy, told reporters last week that the administration is "not interested in some big federal program directed from Washington that sets one-size-fits-all rules."

But he said that Congress can expect some proposal in January that will focus on making child care more affordable.

One option, Mr. Reed said, would be to increase the federal child-care and -development block grant, which provides subsidies to low-income families. Another possibility would be to expand the existing dependent-care tax credit, which allows families to deduct some of their child-care expenses.

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