Child-Care, Research Bills Make Congressional Short List

Surrounded by members of the Senate education committee staff, Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, right, and ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., facing him, talk legislative strategy for a child-care assistance bill after a hearing last week.
Surrounded by members of the Senate education committee staff, Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, right, and ranking member Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., facing him, talk legislative strategy for a child-care assistance bill after a hearing last week.
—T.J. Kirkpatrick for Education Week

Congress appears poised to act

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As the curtain begins to close on the 113th Congress, lawmakers showcased a brief burst of bipartisanship to push forward on two education measures that had been languishing in the legislative pipeline, one that underwrites child care for low-income families and another that directs federal education research.

Though neither bill is a blockbuster—and one got snared in wrangling over a single provision—the fact that they made the short list of actionable items last week just before the pre-election recess was impressive given the number of high-profile competing interests.

During the two weeks since Congress returned to Capitol Hill from its summer break, lawmakers have spent most of their energy negotiating a fiscal 2015 stopgap spending measure to avert a government shutdown, assessing the risk of the Ebola outbreak in Africa, and grappling over the growing conflict in the Middle East.

But before members of Congress returned to their home districts to make one last campaign push prior to the Nov. 4 midterm elections, they managed to make significant headway on the Strengthening Education Through Research Act and legislation to reauthorize the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, likely to be two of the first bills sent to the president's desk during the upcoming lame duck-session.

Increasing Information, Options

The child-care law, which governs a $5 billion program, hasn't been updated since 1996. It provides funding for states to help low-income families pay for child care while a parent works or is in an educational or job-training program.

Reauthorization negotiations were led by the chairmen of each chamber's education committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. John Kline, R-Minn.

Specifically, the measure would give parents more information about available child-care options, including faith-based and community-based providers, and allow parents to choose a program that best suits their family's needs.

The bill would require all providers to comply with state health, safety, and fire standards and undergo annual inspections. For instance, states would have to conduct comprehensive backgroundchecks on child-care providers, something only about a dozen states call for now.

The proposal would also require states to set aside a greater portion of their own funds for program improvement, 10 percent, up from the current 4 percent. The additional money could be used for a range of activities, such as beefing up training for providers and making available "consumer information" to parents so they can compare different providers.

Education advocates who pushed Congress to update the law applauded the negotiation, but some of them said it should have included more money to help programs and states cover the costs of the new quality improvements.

The House passed the reauthorization under suspension of the rules on Sept. 15, amid much fist-bumping from members on both sides of the aisle.

"This bill isn't on suspension because it's unimportant," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee. "It's on suspension because we recognize we need to get it done this year."

Minor Roadblock

However, highlighting how difficult it is to get anything done in this historically dysfunctional Congress—even something as bipartisan and noncontroversial as the child-care bill—the measure quickly hit a roadblock in the Senate.

Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., put a hold on the bill, essentially holding it hostage until one of his bills, which would require all schools to perform background checks on all employees, gets a vote.

The language in Sen. Toomey's bill, the Protecting Students From Sexual and Violent Predators Act, is similar to the language in the child-care bill that requires background checks of employees at child-care centers but would make it a requirement for the entire P-12 space and for every school.

"Senator Toomey believes that we should protect all children from sexual predators, not just those in federally funded day care," said Elizabeth "E.R." Anderson, the communications director for the Pennsylvania senator. She added that Sen. Toomey wants a swift vote on both his bill and the child-care one.

The House unanimously passed the Toomey bill last October. But both the chairman and ranking member of the Senate education committee, Sens. Harkin and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., have specific grievances with the measure, though they support its overall goal.

Still, Sen. Harkin predicted last week that it wouldn't take long to free up the child-care bill by coming to a final agreement on Sen. Toomey's bill.

"We've been working with him for a long time to get it right," said Sen. Harkin.

Making Research Relevant

Meanwhile, the two chambers reached a bipartisan, bicameral deal on the Strengthening Education Through Research Act, which would reauthorize federal education research through the Institute of Education Sciences.

Specifically, the bill would require outside evaluations of IES, including each of IES' centers every five years, with interim findings every three years, and mandate ongoing evaluations of its regional educational laboratories and comprehensive centers.

The measure would also cap the number of centers at 17 and the labs at 10 to "reduce overlapping duties," and eliminate the specific topics that the National Center for Education Research's research and development centers must cover. The bill would instead require the centers to balance coverage of prekindergarten, K-12, and postsecondary issues.

Finally, the proposal would replace "scientifically based research standards" with "scientifically valid research," intended to encourage more research methodologies beyond the so-called "gold standard"of randomized-control trials.

The Senate education committee cleared the measure with bipartisan support on Sept. 17, altering slightly the version the House passed in May.

"This bill enhances the relevancy of research and makes it easier for states and schools to access data," Sen. Harkin said, adding that he expects the largely noncontroversial research bill to be offered for passage under unanimous consent on the Senate floor, likely after the midterm elections in November.

Closing Act

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Lawmakers aren't due back to Capitol Hill until after Veteran's Day. By that time, they will have roughly four legislative working weeks before the close of the 113th Congress.

Both the child-care bill and the education research bill appear slated for quick passage, but Sen. Harkin hinted that he also intends to take on the Higher Education Act reauthorization, including marking it up in committee and putting pressure on Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to bring it to the floor for a vote.

"I feel very strongly about it," said Sen. Harkin, who is retiring at the end of this year after serving in Congress for more than four decades. "I may try to push it in the lame duck. I really might."

Vol. 34, Issue 05, Pages 15, 17

Published in Print: September 24, 2014, as Federal Research, Child-Care Bills Make Short List
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Clarification: An earlier version of this story said the research bill would require outside evaluations of each of IES' centers every three years.

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